Job 1-2; Rev. 12:7-17
The Cosmic Conflict. The Seventh-day Adventist understanding of the Cosmic Conflict has generally been popularized in Adventism under the heading of “The Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan.” It is more fully developed in Ellen White’s “Conflict of the Ages” series: Patriarchs and Prophets (1890), Prophets and Kings (1917), The Desire of Ages (1898), Acts of the Apostles (1911), and The Great Controversy (1888, 1911). But there is a fair bit more to the story by way of background information.
The history of the idea in Adventism. What many Adventists do not realize is that the “Conflict”series is an expansion and a revision of two earlier versions of the same material: a compact four-volume set, reissued in a facsimile two-volume edition in 1945 under the title Spiritual Gifts (1858-64); and a four-volume set, reissued in facsimile form in 1969 under the title The Spirit of Prophecy (1870-1884). All these volumes are still currently in print and available through the Adventist Book Center.
From the standpoint of Ellen White’s own perspective on the “Cosmic Conflict,” several points are worth noting: First, The Great Controversy (1888, 1911) is the only volume in the “Conflict” series that was not thoroughly revised and rewritten after the great watershed “Righteousness by Faith” General Conference in 1888. The1888 GC is a significant revision of the 1884 volume. But except for some improvements in documentation and the softening of some strident anti-papal statements, the 1911 edition is essentially the same as the 1888 version. In practical terms, that means that the full impact of the “righteousness by faith” emphasis in 1888 and after is more clearly seen in the other volumes of the “Conflict” series. In particular, the chapter “Joshua and the Angel” in Prophets and Kings (1917, 582-92), represents a powerful and seamless presentation of the “Investigative Judgment” from a “righteousness by faith” perspective. It represents a significant refinement of its1885 antecedent (Testimonies 5:467-76) and the material on the “Investigative Judgment” presented in The Great Controversy.
Second, many passages and ideas presented in their mature form in the “Conflict” series can be compared with their earlier counterparts in SG (1858-64) and SP (1870-84). To summarize briefly, what that means with reference to the Cosmic Conflict is this: the later Ellen White has shifted from an emphasis on God’s power to an emphasis on His goodness. Such a shift dramatically affects her understanding and presentation of the origin of sin, the role of the cross, and the final destruction of the wicked. But perhaps even more important than Ellen White’s developing understanding of the “Cosmic Conflict” is the development of the idea in Scripture itself. Some brief comments are appropriate on that point, too.
The biblical perspective. If “The Great Controversy” is between Christ and Satan, then how does one see such a conflict in the Old Testament where the “Messiah” is presented in veiled form at best? The understanding of Jesus as the true Passover lamb does not snap clear in the minds of Christians until after the resurrection; the Old Testament Messiah was very much the human son of David; and the presentation of the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah 53 is not linked with the idea of “messiah” until Jesus makes that connection in the New Testament. And the New Testament itself makes it quite clear that even the disciples were unprepared to accept the link between suffering and the messiah until after the resurrection. In short, no one at all was convinced of Jesus’ understanding of His mission until after He rose from the dead.
After the resurrection, the pieces of the “Cosmic Conflict” begin to come together in Christian circles in preparation for their more recent forms as found in the writings of such authors as John Milton, Ellen White, and C. S. Lewis.
It is also worth noting that if the figure of “Christ” is at best a tantalizing shadow in the Old Testament, the same is true for Satan, Christ’s opponent in the “Cosmic Conflict.” Satan is everywhere visible in the New Testament, but is almost invisible in the Old. Only three Old Testament contexts explicitly identify Satan as God’s supernatural opponent and all these are in books that were either written or canonized toward the end of the Old Testament period. Job 1-2, 1 Chronicles 21, and Zechariah 3. Furthermore, in one of these contexts, Satan almost seems to be God’s servant, attacking Job at God’s instigation and with divine approval. Even more remarkable is the fact that, in Job, Satan only appears in the two heavenly scenes in the prologue, nowhere else. Thus only the author and the reader know about Satan. Job himself is oblivious to the “real” reasons for the turmoil which have torn apart his peaceful world.
Another OT “satanic” passage is also noteworthy, but for quite a different reason: The account of David’s ill-conceived census in 1 Chronicles 21 is said to have been instigated by Satan. But the Chronicler is simply re-writing an earlier account of the same event in which God, not Satan, incited David to number Israel (2 Samuel 24). So did God do it or Satan? You have your choice, with a biblical passage to back you up whichever choice you make. But is that so different from our modern world? Can anyone say with certainty where the hand of God ends and the plots of Satan begin? In the view of the author of this study guide (Alden Thompson), it is a mystery. My parents were both killed in a single-car accident in 1997. I take comfort in the NIV marginal reading of Romans 8:28, that God is at work in all things “to bring about what is good.” Yes, I can see providential elements. But I still cannot cleanly separate the hand of God and the hand of the Devil.
And from the standpoint of the historical development of the idea of the “Cosmic Conflict,” the role of the serpent is as tantalizing as any. In Genesis 3:1, the serpent is simply described as being “more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made” (NRSV). The first passage in Jewish-Christian sources to identify the serpent as Satan is Revelation 12:9. And there the Cosmic Conflict is full-blown. But what are we to make of the serpent in the Old Testament, where it is the source of death, but also – in its bronze form made by Moses at God’s command – the source of life? And whose idea was it to use the serpent of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, or the serpents from the staff of Hermes, the messenger of the Greek gods, as symbols for the modern medical profession?
Finally, we must note that the serpent of Genesis 3 is not the only latecomer on stage in the “Cosmic Conflict.” The famous Lucifer passage in Isaiah 14 with its counterpart in Ezekiel 28, are not explicitly identified with the history of Satan until well into the Christian era. And for Adventists, who also link the scapegoat/Azazel of Leviticus 16 with the Cosmic Conflict, the best evidence for the “demonic” interpretation of the second goat (“for/to Azazel,” Lev. 16:8, 10, 26) comes from two remarkable sources: A) the intertestamental book of Enoch, where the Jewish author chose “Azazel” as the name for the leader of the rebel angels; and B) modern commentators who see Azazel as a “demon inhabiting the desert” (T. H. Gaster, “Azazel,” Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible  1:326).
Cosmic Conflict: Key biblical passages from an Adventist perspective. If one looks for the biblical precedents of Ellen White’s mature view, Revelation 12 and the book of Job loom large. Revelation 12 names the opponents and clearly sets out the parameters of the Cosmic Conflict. It portrays – rather subtly to be sure – the crucial climax in the conflict as coming at the cross.
The role of the book of Job is perhaps even more subtle, for while the tension between God and Satan obviously feeds into the conflict, what the book does is provide a microcosm which can then be magnified into its cosmic form. Thus God’s people become witnesses to the universe of their loyalty to God.
Within that framework, the investigative judgment becomes a forum where the character of God takes the spotlight, with his people standing as witnesses to the goodness of God. In the final scene of the Cosmic Conflict, then, it is God’s goodness which convinces the universe of his goodness, not God’s power which subdues it as a means of demonstrating divine authority.
Cosmic Conflict: A Source of Conflict for God’s children. The Adventist understanding of the Cosmic Conflict would be described in technical theological jargon as a “theodicy,” an attempt to justify or vindicate God in the light of a world gone seriously astray. As the “theodicy” question is usually posed, God’s goodness and power are seen to be in conflict. For if God is truly all-powerful and all good, He would not create a world where evil can ride rough-shod over innocent victims. The fact that such a world exists suggests that God may be good, but certainly not all-powerful – or all-powerful, but not good.
Given its free-will Wesleyan roots, Adventism has articulated a free-will theodicy in which God freely chooses to limit His power so that goodness can reign in the end. Such a theodicy assumes that God will win the universe through a demonstration of His love, rather than bludgeoning it into submission as a means of proving His power and authority.
But such a theodicy only makes sense to those with a clear free-will orientation. Indeed, Calvinists and others in the Reformed (predestinarian) tradition have shown remarkably little interest in the theodicy question. They have no need to question God on such matters. God’s sovereignty is the solution to all dilemmas. Many of the theological battles in Adventism are actually deeply rooted in the tension between the more rational, anthropocentric, free-will tradition, and the more mystical, theocentric, predestinarian tradition. The dilemma for the church is this: How can God’s Spirit help us build the body of Christ in such a way as to allow both perspectives to flourish within one community?
For further reading:
Ellen White’s growing understanding of the Cosmic Conflict: Sinai-Golgotha series.
Ellen White’s developing understanding of the “Investigative Judgment”
Biblical presentation of the Cosmic Conflict with no reference to SDA sources:
- “Behold it was very good and then it all turned sour,” chapter 2 in Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Pacesetters, 2003)
Development of the idea of the Messiah, from OT roots to NT fulfillment in Jesus:
- “The best story in the Old Testament,” chapter 7 in Thompson, Who’s Afraid?
The absence of Satan in the Old Testament:
- “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?” chapter 3 in Thompson, Who’s Afraid?
- To what extent is an understanding of the “development” of the biblical ideas and the development of Ellen White’s ideas essential for understanding the “Cosmic Conflict”? The conflict is clear, but the manner in which it is portrayed can also be crucial.
- How can the church shape an approach to the “Cosmic Conflict” which would be acceptable to those who need to question God and those who believe they should not?
- How many of the essential elements of the “Conflict” do Adventists share with other Christians?
Brief Outline of the Cosmic Conflict: An Adventist Theodicy
The following outline is one which presents the over-arching scheme of the Great Controversy from a free-will perspective. In this scenario, the cross is a demonstration of God’s self-sacrificing goodness, a demonstration of the kind of goodness which will be everywhere present in God’s new world: Numerous issues in Adventist history lurk behind almost every aspect of this outline. But this is one way to describe the cosmic conflict and its relationship to the cross.
The fully developed theodicy: God’s people are an ILLUSTRATION of His power (a key human role in the concluding drama in the struggle between good and evil). The model projects the story of Job into cosmic perspective: In the same way that Job demonstrated to the universe that genuine goodness could exist on earth, so God’s people are called to demonstrate to the universe that following God’s way of love is the true path to joy. The great opponent? Selfishness, the essence of sin.
The steps in the conflict in brief outline form:
- Lucifer rebelled against the law of God, the law of love.
- Had Lucifer been willing to admit the binding nature of God’s law, God would have restored him to his position.
- Because LOVE cannot coerce obedience, God ALLOWS this world to become a theater for the outworking of SELFISHNESS, the essence of sin. When the issues are clear, God can safely re-establish the full rule of love.
- In the battle between the two great opposing principles, self-sacrificing LOVE and SELFISHNESS, God presents two major pieces of evidence:
- The CROSS. The demonstration that God Himself is unselfish.
- The JUDGMENT. The demonstration that the law of love is effective in the lives of people, shown by:
- Their DECISION for God
- Their LIVES
- On the basis of the evidence, God’s way is SEEN to be best; LOVE is superior to SELFISHNESS. It is clear to the entire universe that sin destroys. God is SEEN to be just in destroying sin. The KNOWLEDGE of what sin has done makes the universe secure throughout eternity.
“At the cross of Calvary, love and selfishness stood face to face. Here was their crowning manifestation” – The Desire of Ages, 57