Are “principalities and powers” mere metaphors to describe systemic, structural evil? Or are they real spiritual entities that rule (operate through) systemic, structural evil? Does it matter?
According to Ron Sider, “When Paul speaks of the principalities and powers, he refers both to the socio-political structures of human society and to unseen spiritual forces that undergird, lie behind and in some mysterious way help shape human socio-political structures” (Christ and Power).
Sydney Page agrees: “The portrayal of (principalities and powers) reveals that the unfolding of human history is not determined solely by the decisions made by human beings, for there is an unseen dimension of reality that must also be taken into account. In particular, there are malevolent forces in the universe that exercise a baneful influence in the sociopolitical realm” (Powers of Evil).
Principalities and powers are present, plenteous, and active in the world. But if Christ has disarmed them at the cross, then they are like bullies with no weapons (Col 2:15). All they can do is intimidate and be empowered by those who feed off their lies.
For the time being, the victory of King Jesus over the principalities and powers is hidden as far as the world is concerned. But we must remember, had the earthly authorities that colluded with the spiritual powers known the “hidden wisdom of God, … they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:7-8). As G. H. C. MacGregor insightfully points out, it is “by their tragic miscalculation the ‘rulers’ become the instrument of their own destruction. For the sovereignty of Christ is such that even the hostility of the ‘principalities and powers’ is compelled to subserve not their own ends, but God’s” (Principalities and Powers).
OK, so does it matter?
If “we lose our conviction that we have real enemies ‘in the heavenlies,’ that we struggle against, we invariably, and unwittingly, begin to view other humans as our enemies” (Greg Boyd, Understanding Spiritual Warfare: Four Views).
Yes, it does matter.