More than a puzzle

Why an understanding of the great controversy isn't enough.

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As part of a study program last year, I had the opportunity to research the biblical theme of cosmic conflict. Understanding it in the distinctly Adventist terms of “great controversy”, I wanted to discover what theologians from outside Adventism might offer on this topic.

This interest was sparked by recognition of this theme in the writing of scholar, later-in-life convert, and apologist C S Lewis, who admitted his surprise at the sense of what he described as a “civil war” glimpsed in the pages of the Bible:

“One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. . . . Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity . . . thinks [this] is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.”1

I found the strongest treatments of this theme in the work of a number of contemporary New Testament theologians, often drawing out Paul’s treatment of these motifs from his letters to the early churches.

By contrast, the Seventh-day Adventist description of the great controversy—as summarised in Fundamental Belief 8—tends to reference more figurative scriptural passages, such as Revelation 12, Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28, and Job 1 and 2, as well as the early chapters of Genesis. Seen as key to understanding the mission and sacrifice of Jesus, this is also regarded as something of a biblical puzzle: “Scattered across the pages of both the [Old] and [New Testaments] lie many references and allusions to an unrelenting war between God and Satan, between good and evil on both cosmic and personal levels.”2

This is where I most noticed a difference of approach. When recognising these cosmic conflict themes in Paul’s letters, they come in the practical setting of the life of the churches to which they were addressed; when pieced together from sometimes-obscure biblical symbolism, we are tempted to think we have completed our task when we have solved the puzzle, rather than when we seek to live out its implications in our lives, our churches, and our communities.

"A 'widescreen' view of cosmic history must have implications for how we live."

While theologically correct doctrine is valuable, even vital, better understanding is a tool, not an achievement in itself. Such a “widescreen” view of cosmic history must have implications for how we live faithfully to God’s kingdom established in Jesus, and how we respond to suffering, injustice, oppression, and all forms of evil in our world.

Living amid the cosmic conflict, the call to faithfulness is a call to be agents of reversal, working against the powers of sin and death in the power and pattern of Christ. As such, we are called to serve, to help, and to heal wherever and whenever we can and in doing so “conquer evil by doing good” (Romans 12:21, NLT3). A verse such as this means something more when read in the context of cosmic conflict.

Even in Jesus’ well-known parable of the Good Samaritan (see Luke 10:30–37), we can recognise this conflict in play: “Our neighbour is every person who needs our help . . . every soul who is wounded and bruised by the adversary.”4 Being a neighbour—as this parable urges—demands our service and our advocacy, seeking good and justice, particularly for those most vulnerable to the powers of evil, as well as the tragedy and death evil brings; and this matters in the great battle between good and evil.

Following the reflection quoted above, Lewis concluded by describing Christianity as “the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”5 Amid cosmic conflict, in the face of sin and death, systems and powers, injustice and oppression, working for justice and liberation—offering hope, transformation, and restoration—in the name of Christ is the faithful sabotage to which we are called.


Originally published at www.adventistworld.org.

  1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Fount Paperbacks, 1981), p. 45.
  2. Frank B. Holbrook, “The Great Controversy” in Raoul Dederen (ed), Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 2000), p. 969.
  3. Scripture quotations marked NLT are taken from the Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright ã 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.
  4. Ellen White, The Desire of Ages, p. 503.
  5. Lewis, page 45.
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