The Cosmic Conflict Over God’s Character
Scripture: Rev 12:7-12
Leading Question: How can a good and all-powerful God produce a world like this one?
“Theodicy” is a word that describes the issue posed in our leading question. Given the fact that the world is a tragic mess, how could God be both all good and all powerful? The story of the Great Controversy is an attempt to address that question. But it should be noted that the “theodicy” question interests only believers in the free-will tradition. For them, God must win the hearts of his children. By contrast, from the perspective of the predestinarian Calvinist tradition, God doesn’t have to win anyone. He is free to do as he pleases.
In seeking to interpret the Biblical view of the Great Controversy, devout conservatives tend to give all the words of Scripture equal weight without making allowance for historical context. It is a once-true-always-true perspective that easily bypasses or remodels passages that do not seem to place God in a positive light. The Clear Word attempts to do that for the entire Bible, sometimes putting considerable distance between its text and what the Bible really says. Taking account of the historical context of biblical passages, however, significantly enhances the interpretive power of the Great Controversy theme, allowing us to bring otherwise difficult passages into the service of a good God. For further development of some of the ideas noted below, see Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Energion, 2011), especially Chapter 2, “Behold it was very good, and then it all turned sour” and chapter 3, “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?”
1. God Meets People Where They Are. The Great Controversy story means that God grants his creatures the freedom to rebel. The results are shocking. After the rebellion in heaven (cf. Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28), the story shifts to the garden where the serpent leads human beings astray. Remarkably, Genesis does not identify the serpent as Satan. In Genesis 3:1 he is simply “more crafty that any other wild animal that the LORD God has made.” The identification of the serpent as Satan doesn’t come clear until Revelation 12:7-12.
After the sin in the garden, the chapters that follow document the unhappy history of the human race. God has stepped back and allowed sin to take its course; every major event is simply more bad news, from the murder of Abel, to the Flood, to the tower of Babel, ending in God’s call to Abraham. Given the traditional good news perspective, one of the more shocking passages in the Bible is Joshua 24:2 which states that even Abraham’s own family “served other gods.”
The good news is that the often horrific narratives that follow reveal just how far God will go to reach people where they are. It is a story of radical divine accommodation in which he intervenes with great care, often adapting his methods to meet people who are far from him.
The Role of Satan in the Old Testament: Almost Invisible. Given the prominent role of Satan in the Great Controversy story, it can be a great shock to learn that for much of the Old Testament, Satan is not identified as a supernatural being opposed to God. He simply vanishes from sight. Believers can accept that he is still functioning; but for pastoral reasons, God does not tell his people about Satan lest they worship him as another deity. Instead, God assumes full responsibility for both good and evil. That’s why it is so difficult for thoughtful Christians to read the Old Testament, for God is described in such violent terms. But in order to reach increasingly violent people, God will be violent in dealing with them as that is the only language they understand.
Only three passages in the Old Testament clearly identify Satan as God’s opponent and all three appear in books that were either written or canonized at the end of the Old Testament: Job 1-2, Zech. 3, and 1 Chron. 21. The last one, telling the story of David’s census, is particularly striking for in the earlier parallel in 2 Sam. 24, it is God who incites David to number the people while in 1 Chronicles, the same deed is attributed to Satan. All the other passages which Christians (rightly) use as applying to Satan were apparently not so understand by believers in the Old Testament. That would include Genesis 3, Leviticus 16, Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. Even Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 were not applied to Satan until well into the Christian era.
War in Heaven: The Issues Snap Clear at the Cross. The same passage that finally identifies the serpent as Satan is the one that comes closest to telling the full Great Controversy story: Revelation 12:7-12. From the traditional perspective of a war in heaven beginning before creation, what is so startling about this passage is that indicates that Satan was not fully cast out of heaven until the cross: “The accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb....” Apparently war began before creation, but only came to a climax at the cross. An Ellen White quotation from Desire of Ages, 57 places the whole history in perspective: “At the cross of Calvary, love and selfishness stood face to face. Here was their crowning manifestation.”
In short, Satan is so evil, that he would even seek to destroy God. But God is so gracious that he would even be willing to die. And that’s why the story of the Great Controversy is so crucial for understanding the work of Christ on our behalf. Because of Christ’s work, the closing lines of the book The Great Controversy can describe the glorious vision of God’s goodness: