Question: "What are elemental spirits?"
Answer: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8, ESV). Other translations render the phrase elemental spirits of the world as “the elemental spiritual forces of this world” (NIV), “the rudiments of the world” (KJV), and “the powers of this world” (CEV).
The apostle Paul’s letter to the Christians in the Colossian church is a response to the news that many believers had been subscribing to heretical philosophies rather than sticking to the gospel of salvation by grace apart from works. The church had begun to add certain spiritual requirements to their doctrine, reflecting an adherence to Old Testament laws rather than following the wisdom of Jesus (Colossians 2:2–4). These new believers struggled to resolve their former legalistic beliefs with the radical concept of the complete sufficiency of Christ—both for salvation and sanctification.
Paul’s preface makes his purpose clear: “I tell you this so that no one may deceive you by fine-sounding arguments” (Colossians 2:4). He reminds the Colossians of the faith they were taught and deters them from false thinking with a warning: “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ” (Colossians 2:8, ESV).
Some of the terms Paul uses in Colossians 2:8 are easy to understand. Anti-Christian philosophies, outright lies, and legalistic beliefs were to be considered false teaching because they go against the message of salvation through Christ alone. However, there is some question as to what Paul meant by the term elemental spirits of the world. The Greek word Paul uses in Colossians 2:8 means “primary and fundamental principles.” The same word is used in Galatians 4:3, “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (emphasis added).
One view is that elemental spirits refers to the astral gods of former pagan religions or spirits in folklore derived from earth, air, fire, and water. Another belief is that these “elemental spirits” are the angels mentioned in Galatians 3:19 who were involved in the giving of the Old Testament law.
When we consider the context of Colossians 2:8, we can arrive at a better interpretation. Later in the same chapter, Paul again speaks of the “elemental spirits”: “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations . . . according to human precepts and teachings?” (verses 20–22, ESV). Note that Paul equates the “elemental spirits of the world” with “regulations,” “human precepts,” and “teachings.” In verse 8, he links the “elemental spirits” to human tradition and philosophy. The “spirits” here are probably demonic beings who promote false doctrine (see 1 Timothy 4:1) or simply a reference to the doctrines themselves.
The “elemental spirits of the world” are hawking basic worldly ideas about religion and trying to pass them off as truth. The church must guard against anything that works against the gospel of Christ. Whether it be rituals, asceticism, or observance of rules, it cannot save. These ideas are “of the world” in that they involve material things and make sense to the worldly, unconverted mind. They are “elemental” in that they are so basic as to be childish (notwithstanding the false teachers’ highfalutin posturing).
Jesus came to set captives free—free from slavery to sin, free from eternal punishment—to fulfill the law, and finally to bridge the gap between man and God with a sacrifice that resulted in forgiveness forever (Matthew 5:17–20; Luke 4:18; Romans 7:6; Galatians 3:23). The biblical concept of salvation through Christ and God’s grace-filled forgiveness is the gospel delivered once and for all to the saints. We must now be “rooted and built up in [Christ], strengthened in the faith as [we] were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness” (Colossians 2:7). We must not return to the “elemental spirits of the world.”
Christians today may be enticed by the idea that checking all the boxes will earn favor in God’s eyes. We might think that, if we could just pray enough, serve the church enough, be perfect enough, then God would favor us. But none of these things will get us any closer to God’s love, grace, and forgiveness. God’s love is unconditional (John 3:16; Romans 5:8). God’s grace and forgiveness come through faith alone (Galatians 2:16; Ephesians 2:4–5). Jesus’ message is both beautifully simple and mysteriously complex (1 Timothy 3:16). We should not put our faith in works; rather, we must move beyond the elemental spirits of the world and keep our faith in Jesus alone as the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).