I am sure many of you have heard the tragic story of Hannah Clarke and her three children, Aaliyah, Laianah and Trey, who were all killed by Hannah’s estranged rugby-enthusiast husband, Rowan Baxter. On February 19, in a suburban Brisbane street, Baxter trapped his family in their car, doused it with petrol, and set it alight. He actively prevented bystanders from trying to rescue his children from the flames. Baxter then stabbed himself to death.
In a rare show of bipartisanship, politicians on all sides soon called out this true act of evil. The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, echoed the voice of a shocked nation when he said, “There are never any excuses—there are none—or justifications for the evil that Hannah and her children experienced—never, not under any circumstances.”1
Mr Morrison was probably prompted to make this particular emphasis after a Queensland detective had earlier suggested people keep an “open mind”, and that Baxter had perhaps been driven “too far by issues that he’s suffered”.2 The detective was quickly suspended from duty.
Did the Devil make him do it?
After such tragedies many ask themselves, “Where was God?” But, in this instance, the prime minister’s words might incline us to a different question: “Where was Satan?”
As Christians, we know the world is locked in a cosmic struggle between Christ and Satan. This idea is commonly expressed as the “great controversy” theme within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Of course we didn’t invent the idea, as it is an old concept similar to the early church’s Christ Victor idea (literally Christ is victorious), in turn derived from the Bible’s own teachings about cosmic warfare (Revelation 12:7-17).
In defence of the suspended detective, a large part of me agreed with what he was trying—perhaps inarticulately—to say. Baxter did not commit these horrendous actions in a vacuum. We know next-to-nothing about Baxter’s life circumstances. What we do know, though, is that Baxter lived in a very sinful world, which affects us all. When I heard this story my first thought was not of God, but actually Satan, the originator of all this mess.
Nevertheless, when I heard the prime minister’s speech, I also appreciated why others were offended by what the detective said. As if, we might say, the devil made Baxter do it, somehow justifying or excusing what had occurred.
So does blaming Satan for Baxter’s behaviour somehow justify or excuse the choice this husband and father made? More concerning, would it ascribe Satan too much power—too much credit?
Are there one or two deities locked in cosmic combat?
There is some irony for those who struggle with the idea of evil in the face of an omnipotent God. The truth is, the Bible perhaps suggests God is not in fact all-powerful, at least not in the way we humans think of power. The greatest manifestation of God in human history was Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh who came to dwell amongst us here on earth (John 1:1-14).
"In the battle between these two deities, one chooses to surrender His power (and succeeds), while the other attempts to gain it (but fails)."
However, the two greatest exemplars of power in the life of Jesus, which Christians often turn into major celebrations, are illustrations of God’s powerlessness. In the first instance, God-incarnate became a helpless Baby lying in a manger; in the other, God-incarnate was effectively paralysed while hanging on a cross.
The Bible tells us that the very nature of Jesus is of one who was equal to God, but who emptied Himself of divine power (Philippians 2:6,7). And for those who think Jesus’ own vesting of power somehow does not reflect the Father, we should note there is no greater example of God’s deliberate powerlessness than giving the Son to the cross for the world’s sake (John 3:16).
The second irony for those who blame God for evil in the world is that, while people focus on God’s power, He is not the only deity on this earth. We also have Christ’s adversary: Lucifer, also known as the devil or Satan. I say “deity” deliberately, because the Bible does indeed call Satan “the god” (ton theon) of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4). People either completely overlook Satan’s role or, as I have done myself many times, perhaps overstate his power.
However, returning to the original point about Rowan Baxter, Satan is a mere created being, a fallen angel. While Lucifer is of course very powerful, he is not all-powerful. Not for want of trying. As many of us know, he was cast out of heaven for wanting to be like the Most High (Isaiah 14:12-17).
So are these two combatting deities all-powerful?
Therefore, in this cosmic struggle between Christ and Satan, we may not have a battle between two omnipotent beings, at least not in the way we often think of such a contest. On the one hand, Christ is not all-powerful, not because He isn’t inherently omnipotent—He is—but because as a God of love, as a God who is love itself (1 John 4:8, 16), the nature of love is to surrender power in the name of free choice. On the other hand, Satan is not all-
powerful either, because, despite his many efforts, he is a mere created being with no inherent omnipotence.
In the battle between these two deities, one chooses to surrender His power (and succeeds), while the other attempts to gain it (but fails). In a sense this is perhaps what makes it a “fair fight”, or at least a more equal fight.
Who is now involved in this great controversy?
Why does any of this matter? As Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Belief #8 rightly says, “All humanity is now involved in a great controversy between Christ and Satan regarding the character of God, His law and His sovereignty over the universe.” Who is involved in this struggle? All humanity. Every one of us.
In this game of cosmic chess, we are not mere pawns. We are players. God has no hands except our hands (2 Corinthians 5:20). We are responsible for the choices we make. Both Jesus and Satan desperately want us on their side, because the side we choose makes a difference. A tangible, practical difference.
Even though there can be qualifying circumstances behind any tragedy, there can never be any excuses for our actions (John 15:22; Romans 2:1). We cannot wholly blame “the system”, although this is such a messed-up planet. Even in this cosmic battle, we are never tempted beyond what we can bear (1 Corinthians 10:13).
At this point we have to state plainly that violence against women and children—of any kind—is never justified. We are right to be horrified and shocked at events like the killing of the Baxter family, although unfortunately, we often never hear about the silent victims of domestic violence.
While Satan may have indeed been the first rebel, and he will one day pay for his crimes (Revelation 20:3), we cannot simply blame him for all of our actions (Romans 3:10,23). Satan may be a god—of sorts—but he is not all-powerful. God didn’t kill those beautiful children. But neither did Satan. A man did.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer who attends Livingstone Seventh-day Adventist Church, Western Australia.
- “Scott Morrison says the system failed murdered Hannah Clarke and her children”, SBS News Australia, updated February 25, 2020.
- “Brisbane car fire detective taken off the case after suggesting killer Rowan Baxter may have been ‘driven too far’”: ABC News Australia, Updated February 25, 2020.