Theme: “Cosmic Crisis: The Disruption of God’s Established Order”
Leading Question: Why would a good and all-powerful God lead the universe through the horrors of this sinful world before making all things new?
The idea of a cosmic conflict plays an important part in Adventist thinking because it focuses on the question of the existence of sin in a world created by an omnipotent and benevolent deity. But depending on one’s view of God, the conflict can be viewed in quite different ways. In the free-will (Wesleyan) tradition, the goodness of God is emphasized more than God’s power; it is the goodness of God that wins back his alienated world. Such a perspective speaks openly of God’s ultimate “vindication” (justification). Thus the conflict is a question of “theodicy,” the justification of an all-good and all-powerful God in the light of a chaotic world where sin wreaks havoc on innocent victims.
But those who see the power and sovereignty of God as dominant (e.g. in Calvinism) are often repulsed by the idea that sinful human beings could ever play a role in “vindicating” the Master of the Universe. They have no interest in theodicy. From their perspective the conflict simply illustrates how God’s power ultimately passes judgment on sin and sinners. St. Augustine (d. 430 CE) even went so far as to say that God’s judgment on sin is the necessary counterfoil to God’s goodness and that the presence of sinners in hell is an eternal reminder to the universe of the advantages of obedient submission to God.
In Scripture, the issues and players in the conflict are not always depicted with clarity. This is especially true of the Old Testament. For a more comprehensive survey see, “Whatever happened to Satan in the Old Testament?” chapter 3 in Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? (Paternoster, 1988; Zondervan, 1989; Pacesetters, 2000, 2003). These are the crucial points worth noting:
1. God’s Opponent Is Almost Invisible in the Old Testament. Perhaps because of the danger that ancient Israel might worship Satan as an evil deity, God assumed full responsibility for evil in most of the Old Testament. Three notable passages are exceptions that present Satan as a supernatural figure opposed to God. All of the contexts were either written or canonized toward the end of the OT:
A. Job 1-2. In the book of Job, only the author and the reader know anything about Satan. Satan only appears in two scenes in the prologue (1:6-12; 2:2-7). At the heart of the book, however, lurks the powerful suggestion that God is on trial in Job’s experience and is ultimately vindicated through Job’s faithful witness. The experience of Job thus plays a pivotal role in the Adventist understanding of the cosmic conflict.
B. 1 Chronicles 21:1. What is so striking about the story of David’s census is that the same narrative appears in 2 Samuel 24, but with one significant difference: in Samuel God incites David to number the people whereas in Chronicles it is Satan. It is noteworthy that Chronicles is the very last book in the Hebrew Old Testament, coming at a time when it was apparently “safe” to reveal more clearly the role of God’s cosmic opponent. From a practical point of view, the fact that Scripture presents both extremes in its understanding of evil (God is responsible; Satan is responsible) should enable the community of believers today to allow for a full spectrum of perspectives between the two extremes.
C. Zechariah 3:1-5. In Zechariah 3, Satan is clearly presented as the “accuser” of God’s people, an important corrective to the sinister suspicion lurking among God’s people that God is the “accuser” of his people. Taking Zechariah 3 seriously should enable us to see ourselves as standing in the judgment, not as the accused, but as witnesses for God.
2. The Old Testament Reveals Subtle Hints of the Conflict and Begins to Identify the Central Issue. In addition to the three OT passages where God’s supernatural opponent is identified explicitly (Job 1-2, 1 Chronicles 21; Zech 3), four additional passages begin to flesh out the story of the conflict:
A. Genesis 3: Serpent. In Genesis, the serpent is simply “more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made.” Not until Revelation 12:9 is the serpent explicitly identified as Satan. Nevertheless, Genesis still reverberates with the tension between God and the serpent and prepares for the fuller understanding of the conflict that would develop over time.
B. Leviticus 16: Goat for Azazel. In the services of the great annual Day of Atonement, the ritual of the two goats points toward the great cosmic conflict. Evangelicals typically do not recognize the goat “for Azazel” as representing Satan and thus do not see the chapter as illustrating the great conflict. It is worth noting, however, that in 1 Enoch, an intertestamental pseudepigraphical book, the author gives the name “Azazel” to the leader of the heavenly rebels.
C. Isaiah 14:12-14: Lucifer. Though this passage was not clearly linked with the history of Satan until the writings of the church father Tertullian (d. 240 CE), it unmistakably points to the conflict and highlights the sin of selfish pride, the essential issue in the great conflict.
D. Ezekiel 28:11-19: Anointed Cherub. Like its counterpart passage in Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28 was not linked with the history of Satan until the Christian era. But also, like Isaiah 14, it links the fall of a heavenly being with the sin of selfish pride.
3. The New Testament Boldly Clarifies the Personalities in the Conflict and Their Role Over Against Each Other. Revelation 12:7-12 is the crucial biblical passage that identifies the key personalities in the great cosmic conflict: Michael and the Dragon. The passage also makes clear that the war in heaven reaches its climax at the cross. This is the context for Ellen White’s striking description of the great conflict: “At the cross of Calvary, love and selfishness stood face to face. Here was their crowning manifestation” (DA 57).
4. The Scope of the Conflict Summarized. When the pieces of the story come together, biblical history is seen to flow from creation, to fall, to cross and resurrection, and on to final judgment and restoration. The cross is the climax; resurrection seals the victory. For the story to be complete, however, not just the cross, but also the response of God’s people to the cross is crucial to the resolution of the conflict. In the judgment, both God and his people testify to the universe that God’s law of love is the only way to peace and happiness. By taking human flesh and dying on the cross, God fulfills, (fills full) the law of self-sacrificing love. In the judgment, God’s people show by their lives that the law of love is the only way to peace and joy. The key steps in the conflict can be summarized as follows:
Cosmic Conflict: A Summary of the Fully-developed Theodicy Issue
1. Lucifer rebelled against the law of God, the law of love.
2. Had Lucifer been willing to admit the binding nature of God”s law, God would have restored him to his position.
3. 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.
4. In the battle between the two great opposing principles, self-sacrificing LOVE and SELFISHNESS, God presents two major pieces of evidence:
a) The CROSS. The demonstration that God Himself is unselfish.
b) The JUDGMENT. The demonstration that the law of love is effective in the lives of people, shown by:
1) Their DECISION for God
2) Their LIVES
5. 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” (DA 57)
Crucial Questions for Discussion:
A. How can the story of the cross banish unnecessary fear while assuring a healthy confidence in Jesus?
B. If the Calvinist tradition shows no interest in theodicy, would it not be likely that many Adventists would also lack enthusiasm for the “cosmic conflict” theme? How can the church safely address that diversity of perspective?
C. S. Lewis on the balance between love and fear: “Perfect love, we know casteth out fear. But so do several others things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity. It is very desirable that we should all advance to that perfection of love in which we shall fear no longer; but it is very undesirable, until we have reached that stage, that we should allow any inferior agent to cast out our fear.” – C. S. Lewis, “The World’s Last Night,” in The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, p. 109