The stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the world are not all they’re cracked up to be. However much we want to believe we live a coherent narrative, where the endless succession of events of life have clear meaning, the stories we tell are invariably based upon the (mistaken) premise that we have a grasp, or understanding, of how it is the world works and what the best outcome should be for the narrative of our lives. Yet there is an almost indescribable gap between the logic that shapes our choices and their ultimate outcomes, one that cannot simply be attributed to a faulty GPS device. Hindsight is 20/20, they say. The retrospective Monday morning quarterbacking of our lives should lead us to the conclusion that most consequences could not have been predicted in the first place. Many remain inexplicable.

Looking outward at the various spheres of community, we observe movements of change, the coalescing of human will into the collective decisions of politics, economics, and culture. We struggle, with varying degrees of success, to narrate how our society unfolds. Supply and demand, the invisible hand, the Trump effect, or the social media disconnect. We hypothesize theories from the surveys and polls to speak of millennials or ‘religious nones’ to make sense of the ever-shifting ground upon which we stand. If the laws of physics are immutable, we think, then perhaps social systems function in a similarly predictable manner. Yet the sheer accumulation of social theories, outliers, and unforeseen elections should give us pause—or at least humility–before offering up a fresh formulation.

The root of our misunderstandings in these necessary ventures lies in a failure to understand the nature of the world itself and a belief that it functions solely according to the schema of cause and effect. The world and ourselves are explainable, we believe, if we tell the right story. All we need is the right data to make sense of it. As children of the Enlightenment (if only distantly at this point), we project the supposed rationality of nature upon the entire documentary of human existence.

To these reasonable, yet imperfect, hypotheses of the world, Paul offers an emphatic critique that relegates them to penultimate significance. This isn’t because Paul believes the world to be an absolute enigma. Nor is it because Paul has come to believe in a more profound, antiquarian narrative of creation, fall, Israel, Jesus, and the future resurrection — as if these events can be mapped out in a logically causal chain. For Paul, we find so often that human existence is inexplicable because there are other Actors on the stage of human history for which we cannot fully account.

These Actors go by many names: Sin, the Flesh, Death, the Law, the Spirit, etc. and they constitute what is called Paul’s “apocalyptic” worldview. It is this apocalyptic battlefield within which humanity exists as pawns and infantry soldiers, willfully yet unknowingly doing the bidding of their respective lords.

Within this battle, humans are blind to knowing or predicting the outcome of their actions. The individual who is “of the flesh, [namely] sold under Sin” does the precise thing they do not what to do (Rom. 7:14-15). Whatever one wishes to do, whether good or evil, is coopted by the power of Sin to produce evil. No matter what strategy one employs, within a world that can be dominated by anti-God powers the end result is all the same: suffering and death. In short, in a world ruled by Sin there is no purely good outcome to anything. There is always a gap between even our most idealistic intensions and the unexpected outcomes. The insufficiency of common explanations of ourselves do not strictly arise from self-deception, as if an accurate diagnosis of the situation were openly available to us if only we could look. Instead, for Paul, we are deceived and commandeered by Sin itself. In theological terms, the will is bound by these hostile powers and the terrain of life is one in which we and they jointly operate. As the New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann wrote, the individual is “in the grip of forces which seize his existence and determine his will and responsibility at least to the extent that he cannot choose freely but only grasp what is already there” (Commentary on the Romans, p. 147).

What is true of the individual is simultaneously true on the wider scale of human history and society. In Galatians, Paul says that he and the Galatian church were rescued from the “present evil age” (1:4), an age marked by slavery to evil powers (what he calls stoicheia in 4:3-8, often translated as “the elemental principals of the world”). It’s not simply, for Paul, that the world is fallen. The world has been taken hostage and enslaved by cosmic lords of evil that manifest themselves across human history in many forms.

Paul attributes the church’s return to life under the Law to their falling under a curse (3:1), one that coincides with their submission to the stoicheia (4:9). Paul is at such a loss to explain the behavior of his former church that the only plausible explanation to him is their entrapment by the cosmic evil forces from which he thought they were free. The inexplicability of communal decisions is, for Paul, only intelligible in light of his apocalyptic framework. The dividing live between the church and “the world” is not as clear as one would hope.

If these anti-God, apocalyptic powers can commandeer a church, there’s no telling how they might also influence the secular spaces of economics, politics, or social media. The language of powers helps to explain why even altruistic endeavors of social change so often have unintended negative consequences. If the power of Sin is the Law (1 Cor. 15:56), it’s no wonder that repeated attempts to ease the troubled consciences afflicted by impossible societal standards paradoxically end up raising the standard higher (see, for example, the recent Mockingcast discussion of the “True Beauty” movement). The days of fat-shaming are over, we are told, but the demand of self-acceptance is now a more exacting taskmaster precisely because it should be more attainable. It seems that the moment society attempts to absolve you of your failures, Sin somehow makes the burden greater. For all our cultural stories of progress and enlightenment, the legal tools of social change often exchange one form of oppression for another, one more insidiously disguised. Meet the new Boss (read: Sin), the same as the old Boss.

The apocalyptic Paul might sound like a strange relic from an unenlightened, pre-modern age; he is, and it’s fabulous. But highlighting Paul’s belief in powers is not meant to convince the reader that your garage door is possessed by demons. Paul wasn’t that naïve and neither should we be. I instead wish to suggest that the old mythological language Paul used should be reclaimed and re-appropriated. Whether or not Principalities and Powers actually exist — and I should say that jury is still out on that — the myth still has value for how it explains the gap between expected/desired outcomes and what actually happens.

To return to the question of offering a coherent narrative of life and the world, the language of apocalyptic powers is employed by Paul to suggest that there isn’t a direct correlation between the kind of cause and effect which narrative demands. If there is a story to be told, it is discontinuous and full of unresolved tensions, gaps, and contradictions.

It’s not so much that Christianity needs an alternative, almost escapist narrative, beginning with creation, the fall, redemption in Jesus, and the future resurrection of the dead — into and within which we can imaginatively find our place. What is needed instead is an alternative account of the world we see and the lives we live, one that makes sense of the obvious fissures of them and the occasionally rival interpretations. Paul does not ever narrate the Christian faith through the logical sequence of cause and effect. For him, there is no primordial plan of redemption that enfolds over time; there is only the interruption of history through the revelation of the grace of God. Because this grace is given unconditionally, it is only revealed as a disturbance of a previously sinful equilibrium that has no causal relationship to grace itself. If grace is a repair job or a medicine that heals, then we would have the best of stories to tell ourselves as we move from somewhat good to great.

Grace, instead, always comes as a surprise—to move us from death to life. It is an alien invasion of the enslaved cosmos itself to condense our storytelling to this singular event that divides time into a simple before and after. The life under grace is not a narrative, but a testimony to an event of resurrection. For I once was blind, but now I see. We once were dead, but by the grace of God are dead no more. If we have  story at all, if we have a song, it is of God’s unforeseen intervention to unseat the Powers of evil by the blood of the lamb who takes away the sin of the world.