The Bible refers to elemental spirits or elemental forces a few times, especially in the New Testament letters. These mysterious entities are likely related to ancient pagan beliefs about spirits associated with natural elements like air, earth, fire, and water. The Bible warns against worshiping or venerating such spirits rather than God alone.
One mention of elemental spirits is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Galatians 4:3 says “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” The Greek word translated here as “elementary principles” is stoicheia, which refers to basic worldly principles or supposed deities associated with the elements.
In the ancient world, it was common for people to believe that spirits inhabited natural forces like wind, water, fire, and earth. These spirits were thought to influence nature and human affairs. Many pagan religions venerated such spirits and incorporated worship of them into their idolatrous practices. Paul is likely referring to these kinds of elemental spirits when writing to the Galatians and Colossians.
In Colossians 2:8, 20, Paul warns against being taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophy grounded in “elemental spirits of the world” rather than Christ. He admonishes the Colossians not to submit to decrees about abstaining from certain foods or rituals if they are based on worship of the stoicheia, or elemental spirits.
Some scholars think the stoicheia referred to astral beings associated with astrology, something Paul warned against in Galatians 4:9-11. But more likely, Paul has in mind the elemental spirits of pagan lore when he tells believers not to get caught up in worshiping such beings.
Why does Paul speak against venerating elemental spirits? Because devotion to any spiritual power other than the true God is foolish and dangerous. Seeking blessings, guidance, or salvation from mythological nature spirits insults the majesty, authority, and sufficiency of Christ. Paul calls the Colossians to reject pseudo-spirituality grounded in elemental principles and instead fix their eyes solely on Jesus Christ as Lord.
The book of Hebrews also contains a cryptic reference to teachings about “elemental spirits” in Hebrews 5:12. The author rebukes readers for regressing spiritually to needing basic teachings about God rather than meaty doctrine. He laments that they need milk rather than solid food, as if unskilled in the “word of righteousness.” This may indicate they were curiously exploring teachings related to pagan elemental spirits rather than pressing on to maturity in Christ.
So in summary, the Bible denounces any veneration or worship of so-called elemental spirits of earth, air, fire, water, or any other natural force. Fixing attention on elemental deities reflects immature doctrine and practice. Believers must reject devotion to elemental spirits and instead pursue knowing Jesus Christ as Lord of all. He has authority over every principality, power, and authority, elemental or otherwise. Therefore Christians serve Him alone.
While modern science no longer believes that spirits inhabit natural forces, some New Age philosophies have revived veneration of earth, sun, wind, fire and water in monistic or pantheistic ways. Christians still must guard against any ideology that calls people to worship creation rather than the Creator who alone is God over all.
In the ancient mindset, elemental spirits were local deities thought to inhabit and control water, fire, earth, air, the sun, moon, stars, and more. But the Bible proclaims the Lord God Almighty created all these elemental aspects of the cosmos. Therefore He alone deserves worship, not mythic spirits imagined to preside over forces of nature.
Interestingly, the Bible depicts the one true God as transcending and ruling over the elements, revealing His supreme power and authority over all rival spirits. For example, at creation God’s spirit moved over the cosmic waters, showing His absolute dominion over that realm (Genesis 1:2).
The book of Exodus describes how God turned the Nile River to blood and sent plagues of fire, wind, and hail against Egypt, triumphing over the supposed river and elemental deities of the Egyptians. God also displayed authority over the sun when He prolonged its light for Joshua and turned the sun’s reflection back for King Hezekiah.
The book of Job too extols God’s peerless power over all the elemental forces, including rain, lightning, wind, stars, and constellations (Job 26:7-14, 28:24-27). The Psalms proclaim “fire and hail, snow and mist, stormy wind fulfilling His word!” showing God’s supreme dominion over all atmospheric phenomena (Psalm 148:7-8). Jesus Christ His Son exhibited the same authority by calming wind and waves, multiplying food, and defying gravity when He walked on water.
In short, the Bible subverts pagan assumptions about capricious spirits controlling the elements and instead reveals the Lord God Almighty alone created, sustains, and rules over all aspects of nature. Therefore, He alone is worthy of worship, not any imaginary elemental deities.
Nevertheless, some philosophies perpetuate errors similar to ancient worship of elemental spirits. For example, Gaia theory sees the earth as a living, divine being to be revered. Some nature worshippers honor the sun or moon as sacred deities. Animistic religions attribute spirits to trees, rivers, rocks, or animals.
New Age philosophies revive pantheistic notions of divine energy or consciousness permeating all matter. Even secular environmentalism promotes a materialist devotion to the planet that functionally rivals worship. Paul warned against similar errors when admonishing against worship of elemental spirits.
Christians today must avoid any neo-pagan ideology exalting aspects of nature as divine. The Bible insists God alone created and rules over all the elemental substrates of the cosmos. He summoned them into being by His Word and sustains them by His power for His purposes (Hebrews 1:3). Therefore, reverence and worship belong to Him alone.
In conclusion, the Bible soundly refutes any notion of elemental spirits ruling over or inhabiting nature. These represent vestiges of antiquated pagan assumptions, echoes of a pre-scientific age. Earth, air, fire, and water all operate according to the predictable laws the Lord God programmed into His creation. No spirits, elemental or otherwise, control the elements.
Therefore, Christians must reject any philosophy urging devotion to environmental or elemental spirits. Such ideas denigrate the wise, sovereign Creator who alone designed the cosmos and governs it by His Word for His glory. He calls His people to serve Him alone, the one true God who has definitively revealed Himself in Scripture and finally in Jesus Christ, His eternal Living Word (John 1:1-4).
In the Bible
The Bible directly references elemental spirits or elemental principles a few times. Here are the key verses:
Galatians 4:3, 9 – “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world…But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?”
Colossians 2:8 – “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 2:20 – “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?”
Hebrews 5:12 – “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food.”
In these verses, the Greek word translated “elemental” or “elementary principles” or “elemental spirits” is stoicheia. This refers to the basic elements or principles people ascribed religious significance to in pagan philosophies.
In the Ancient World
To understand the biblical warnings against elemental spirits, it helps to explore how ancient peoples viewed the elements. Many pagan religions incorporated worship of nature and attributed divine qualities or spirits to natural forces.
In ancient Near Eastern religions like Mesopotamian, Egyptian, Canaanite, and Persian faiths, people worshipped personified deities representing the elements.
For example, the Sumerian storm god Ishkur was associated with rain, clouds, and lightning. Egyptians revered the god Set as lord of the desert, storms, and chaos. Baal was a Canaanite storm and fertility deity who they believed brought rain. Ancient mythologies are replete with such gods of sea, sky, storms, earth, and sun.
In Greek philosophy, the concept of stoicheia referred to fundamental components of the universe. Pre-Socratic philosophers like Empedocles proposed that all matter comprised four essential roots or elements: air, earth, fire, and water. Many Greeks attributed divine spirits to these elemental substrates of the material world.
Hellenistic philosophies like Neoplatonism developed complex cosmic hierarchies of demons, angels, or emanations administering the elements and bodies of the world. Gnosticism, popular in the early church, echoed similar ideas of archons ruling over the material universe.
So when Paul warned about elemental spirits, his original readers readily understood these as regional spirits or demons overseeing the elements. By telling believers to reject focus on such spirits, Paul repudiates all worship of anyone or anything other than God alone.
Dangers of Elemental Spirits
Paul speaks against elemental spirits because worshiping them poses several dangers:
1. They do not exist – Elemental spirits are imaginary beings with no actual power or authority over water, wind, earth, or fire.
2. They are not gods – The Bible insists there is only one true and living God worthy of worship – the Lord who created all things and revealed Himself ultimately in Christ (Isaiah 42:5; 45:5-7; John 1:1-3; Colossians 1:15-17).
3. They promote false worship – Venerating elemental spirits diminishes worship of the Creator and Redeemer. This is idolatry, which Scripture strongly condemns.
4. They foster occult practices – Seeking power, guidance, or knowledge from elemental spirits or other objects of worship can open dangerous demonic doors.
5. They seduce people from Christ – Paul warns that worship of elemental spirits competes with sincere faith in Jesus. It can distract from pure devotion to Him.
6. They stunt spiritual growth – Preoccupation with elemental spirits reflects immature doctrine. The writer of Hebrews says leaving basic teachings about evil spirits for deeper knowledge of Christ is the path to maturity.
For these reasons and others, Scripture exhorts believers to reject, oppose, and expose any teaching promoting worship of elemental spirits. Christians serve the one true living God who reigns over every principality and power in heaven and on earth.
God’s Supremacy Over the Elements
A biblical worldview insists that the Lord God Almighty alone created, owns, and governs the material world. God’s Word consistently attests to His unmatched power and authority over all the elemental substrates of the universe.
Rather than capricious elemental spirits wielding control over aspects of nature, the Bible reveals the elements as completely subordinate to God’s sovereign purposes.
For example, Scripture says God:
- Moved His Spirit over the cosmic waters (Genesis 1:2)
- Created the expanse separating waters above from waters below (Genesis 1:6-8)
- Formed man from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7)
- Sent the flood waters to judge the world (Genesis 7)
- Destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah with burning sulfur (Genesis 19:24)
- Turned the Nile to blood and sent plagues of hail, locusts, and darkness (Exodus)
- Parted the Red Sea (Exodus 14)
- Sent manna from heaven to feed Israel (Exodus 16:4)
- Made water flow from a rock (Exodus 17, Numbers 20)
- Rained bread from heaven (Exodus 16)
This pattern continues throughout Scripture, consistently showing God’s absolute dominion over the elements of creation. The Psalms especially extol God’s unmatched power, wisdom, and authority over all aspects of nature:
“By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth…He gathers the waters of the sea as a heap; he puts the deeps in storehouses.” (Psalm 33:6,7)
“You rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them. You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm. The heavens are yours; the earth also is yours; the world and all that is in it, you have founded them.” (Psalm 89:9-11)
God’s supreme control over the elemental substrates of creation proves He alone deserves worship, not any imaginary spirits of sea or storm, earth or air, fire or water. He sovereignly upholds the physical world to accomplish His purposes for His glory.
Applications for Today
While few today believe in elemental spirits, the Bible’s warnings against them remain relevant in several ways:
1. Reject nature worship – Be wary of any ideology that attributes divine worth to the earth, sun, stars, or other aspects of creation. Worship the Maker, not what He made.
2. Avoid pantheism and panentheism – Theories that equate God with nature or the universe, or see everything as part of God, revive ancient errors. Scripture insists the transcendent Creator surpasses His finite creation.
3. Oppose occult practices – Seeking power or guidance from anything other than God is dangerous. Stay far from astrology, horoscopes, fortune telling, summoning rituals, and other occult activities.
4. Be wary of “spirituality” – Not every practice claiming to connect with the supernatural represents true biblical faith. Test every philosophy by the touchstone of God’s Word.
5. Worship God alone – He created all things for His pleasure and deserves exclusive worship and service. Adore God for His wisdom, power, authority, and love manifested in creation and Scripture.
6. Study God’s Word – Mature beyond elementary teachings about evil spirits haunting nature. Press on to know Christ and His grace, truth, and salvation through diligent Bible study.
7. Glorify God in environmental stewardship – As God’s image-bearers, responsibly steward natural resources in a way that honors Him and serves human flourishing. We glorify the Creator by properly enjoying the creation.
The Bible’s warnings against elemental spirits remain highly relevant today. By heeding Scripture’s admonitions, Christians can avoid many subtle pitfalls and joyfully worship the one true living God through His Son, in whom “all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).