This post is in response to a reader request. I wrote it several days ago, but have had computer problems. My apologies for the late response, and please keep suggestions and questions coming!
What does it mean to say that Christ has dominion or lordship over things such as sin and death? Traditionally, titles such as “Lord of the Grave” belong to some dark god whose dominion is limited to sin and death – usually someone we would equate with Satan, not Christ. But Christ is Lord of All, and all dominions and authorities have been – or are being – placed under his feet.
I’ve always struggled with this notion, because it implies that Christ has not always been Lord of All, but now is, yet perhaps not completely. It’s complicated! It must go back to Creation and Fall. “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God” (John 1:1) puts Christ at the moment of Creation (or before), equated with God. At this point, there were no other powers, authorities, or dominions, nothing for God to rule over. So he created the world and everything in it, including those powers and authorities that would later rebel against him.
A quick aside to explain what the powers and authorities are. Paul speaks of them often, using words like powers, authorities, dominions, principalities, thrones, elements, etc. We’ve always understood them to be invisible spiritual forces, but scholars are split over what kind of forces they are. Some see them as demons, exercising their evil influence over people in positions of power, thereby influencing human institutions; others see them as the spiritual essence of those institutions, which themselves are fallen creations of God – just like everything else in this world, corrupted by human sin. In either case, the institutions that run our everyday life (church, government, culture, and increasingly, corporations) are corrupted and no longer confine themselves to their intended good function: governments no longer protect the people, but exploit them; culture does not always enrich the lives of people, but enslaves and divides them (e.g. racism, sexism, etc.); work ceases to reward our labour, instead rewarding absentee owners while often enslaving workers; churches become centres for false doctrine, materialism, and self-centred ‘spirituality’; etc. The combination of all of these corrupted institutions is what Walter Wink calls “the Domination System,” which invariably leads to human death and depravity on a huge scale – and no wonder, because we can’t get away from them. Together, these institutions organize and control our lives, having influence over us even as we influence them. They are the combination of all of the ideas and attitudes of everyone over whom they have power, and in this way they are self-perpetuating: when I have an idea or attitude, I share it with those around me; when it becomes widespread, it becomes a part of my culture; my culture then mirrors my own idea or attitude back onto me, further ingraining it in me (and, now, everyone else). This happens with sinful ideas and attitudes as well as good ones, so it’s easy to see how these authorities become corrupted: they are too closely tied with human beings, which are corrupted by sin.
I think the idea here is that God didn’t want to destroy the world, but to save it – which meant that he must subdue the powers and principalities, rather than flood or stab them out of existence. Because with war and natural disasters, it’s not the powers and principalities that are destroyed, but the people that they rule over. The only way to destroy those forces is to remove all of the people from which they gain power; Jesus decided to do it the other way around, saving all of the people but subduing the powers. He needed a finer, yet more powerful, weapon for that, truth, because ultimately the corruption of the powers is based on falsehoods. Racism and sexism are based on lies about the worth of certain types of people; materialism is based on lies about the worth of things, and contributes to our corrupted system of commerce and consumerism and corporations; the power of government over people is based on its moral authority, for the government only holds the power of the sword in order to limit the effects of sin, not perpetuate them; etc. By showing the world the truth, Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, putting them back into their rightful place – in submission to him, doing what they should be doing: enriching our lives, rather than destroying them.
We often try to break theology into smaller ideas, seeing it as a collection of ideas, or a series of God’s actions. The trouble with this is that in doing so we often fail to see the big picture, which is really very simple, and the links between all of these events or ideas. All of this is about renewing Creation. God created the world, and it rebelled against him; ever since, he’s been working at reversing the fall to make Creation what it once was. This is the part that I have trouble with, too: I like to think of each doctrine independently, and I also like to think of events chronologically, but scripture generally doesn’t do either of those things. The part I have trouble with is the good ol’ “already-but-not-yet” principle.
Jesus used the truth to put the powers and principalities in their place, i.e. subject to God; but the truth that he used is the fact that they already are, and have always been, under God’s authority. He told Pilate “you have no authority over me except that which has been granted from above,” and in so doing undermined the abusive use of authority by the Roman government in Palestine. He pointed to the ideal, intended state of affairs, and said “this is how things really are.” And with that revelation, it became so – at least in a limited sense. In a way, there are two realities: the world we see around us is corrupted, in rebellion against God, and enslaved to sin and death; yet Jesus has the gall to stand before his persecutors and say, in the face of all of this sin and death, that God is sovereign over it all. He held on to that until the end of his earthly life, and was executed for it. When he resurrected, and his true status as the divine God-man was completely revealed, he explained it to his disciples by saying “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to me…” – which is like saying “I’m God” – “…therefore make disciples of all nations, baptising them…and teaching them to obey me.” The corruption of this world based on lies; Jesus bore witness to the truth, which is that God is still sovereign, and broke the power of those lies in a single time and place. But in doing so he showed us how to do the same, and then told us to go out and do it, bearing witness to the reality that God – which is Jesus Christ – is still sovereign over this world full of sin and death.
We are faced with two realities. The corrupted world we live in, in which we are all slaves to sin and death and held in that bondage by the powers and principalities and authorities and their earthly representatives; and the reality that Christ is Lord of All. The first one, we can’t help but see; the second one, we must take by faith. The writers of the New Testament struggled with this one too: quoting a psalm that talks about how God made all things subject to humanity, one writer says “we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus” (see Hebrews 2:6-9). Jesus is the proof of the invisible reality, the source of our faith in God’s sovereignty, our window into the better world that God had planned for us. And when we bear witness to Jesus, we’re also bearing witness to this other reality – and just as it did for Jesus, when we speak the truth, when we bear witness to this other reality, it becomes visible in the midst of the visible, corrupted world. To say it another way, when people speak the truth and live in the way God planned for us, sin and death lose their power over us and those around us – even if only a little bit. Our local church is a place where the lies of the Domination System are met with the truth of the Gospel, and the truth wins. Sin and death still exist, but we are no longer slaves to them; they derive their power over us from our belief in them and participation with them, and we have instead chosen to believe in and participate with God. Chaos and corruption still swirl around us, but we recognize them as the aberration rather than the rule, and we need not be overwhelmed by them; and our presence and witness ease the control of the powers over others around us as well.
That’s not to say that we don’t feel the consequences of sin, and even its ultimate consequence, which is death. Yet Jesus has died and rose again, and has promised to do the same for us all (even the unrighteous will resurrect). So not only do we not need to participate with the powers in this world, but there is nothing that they can do to us that Jesus cannot undo! This would have been very important to the early disciples, who faced execution because of their witness: even execution cannot stop the truth, and the truth is that Christ reigns as Lord of All.
In practical terms, this means that we can hold onto hope as long as we hold onto the truth. The resurrected life is not an escape from this world, but rather the fulfillment of it: even in death, we can still point to the other reality, in which we have eternal life. This is why we can say that we have eternal life even though we all expect to die someday; because we are pointing to that other reality, which is slowly overtaking this fallen, corrupted one that so often hurts us. Jesus won, and every time we show that fact to the world in a real way, the reality of it overtakes the lie that corrupts us and we are set free from it. One lie at a time.