“Theodicy” is a word that bubbles up to the top when we address the issue of the “Cosmic Conflict.” 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 freewill 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 oncetruealwaystrue 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 12:712.
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.
2. 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 since 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 12, 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, God is the one 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 understand in that way 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.
3. 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 12:712. From the traditional perspective of a war in heaven beginning before creation, what is so startling about this passage is that it 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:
There the redeemed shall know, even as also they are known. The loves and sympathies which God Himself has planted in the soul shall there find truest and sweetest exercise. The pure communion with holy beings, the harmonious social life with the blessed angels and with the faithful ones of all ages who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb, the sacred ties that bind together “the whole family in heaven and earth” (Ephesians 3:15) – these help to constitute the happiness of the redeemed. – GC 677
There, immortal minds will contemplate with neverfailing delight the wonders of creative power, the mysteries of redeeming love. There will be no cruel, deceiving foe to tempt to forgetfulness of God. Every faculty will be developed, every capacity increased. The acquirement of knowledge will not weary the mind or exhaust the energies. There the grandest enterprises may be carried forward, the loftiest aspirations reached, the highest ambitions realized; and still there will arise new heights to surmount, new wonders to admire, new truths to comprehend, fresh objects to call forth the powers of mind and soul and body. – GC 677
All the treasures of the universe will be open to the study of God’s redeemed. Unfettered by mortality, they wing their tireless flight to worlds afar – worlds that thrilled with sorrow at the spectacle of human woe and rang with songs of gladness at the tidings of a ransomed soul. With unutterable delight the children of earth enter into the joy and the wisdom of unfallen beings. They share the treasures of knowledge and understanding gained through ages upon ages in contemplation of God's handiwork. With undimmed vision they gaze upon the glory of creation – suns and stars and systems, all in their appointed order circling the throne [677/678] of Deity. Upon all things, from the least to the greatest, the Creator's name is written, and in all are the riches of His power displayed. – GC 677/678
And the years of eternity, as they roll, will bring richer and still more glorious revelations of God and of Christ. As knowledge is progressive, so will love, reverence, and happiness increase. The more men learn of God, the greater will be their admiration of His character. As Jesus opens before them the riches of redemption and the amazing achievements in the great controversy with Satan, the hearts of the ransomed thrill with more fervent devotion, and with more rapturous joy they sweep the harps of gold; and ten thousand times ten thousand and thousands of thousands of voices unite to swell the mighty chorus of praise. – GC 678
And every creature which is in heaven, and on the earth, and under the earth, and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them, heard I saying, Blessing, and honor, and glory, and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever.”–Rev. 5:13. – GC 678
The great controversy is ended. Sin and sinners are no more. The entire universe is clean. One pulse of harmony and gladness beats through the vast creation. From Him who created all, flow life and light and gladness, throughout the realms of illimitable space. From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love. – GC 678.3
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5711