Tag Archives: cosmic conflict

The Larger View of the Gospel

Continuing chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:5

So what is the message of the cross? Evidently it’s much more than the payment of a legal penalty so that somehow God can justly forgive you and me. The cross was also needed by the loyal angels. And this truly suggests that we ought to go back to the foot of the cross and join the family of the universe in watching closely just how Jesus died. We will listen very carefully to His words on the cross: “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken Me?” What does that mean? And how does that suffering and death restore peace to God’s family? I believe that in the great controversy, all Christian beliefs take on much broader significance.

The gospel most certainly is the good news about what God has done for me and you. But in the larger great controversy setting, the gospel is the truth about our gracious God. It is the truth that ends the war, confirms the loyalty of the universe, and wins some of us back to repentance and to trust. I believe that the most important of all our beliefs is the truth about God. God is not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be—arbitrary, vengeful, and severe. He is instead precisely what His Son revealed Him to be. We believe the testimony of Jesus when He said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). God is just as loving and gracious as His Son; just as willing to forgive and heal.

Could there be any better news than that? To me, that’s the everlasting good news that maintains the loyalty of the universe. That is the gospel that wins us back, and will maintain our loyalty and trust for the rest of eternity. And this is the message we have the high privilege of sharing with people all over this planet. People who may not know they are members of God’s family. People who deserve to know, and who deserve to hear this truth. So the ultimate question for this book to address is: Can we be sure God is just like this? Jesus always welcomed questions, and we can be sure that we ought to do the same.

The Larger View of the Bible and the Cross

Continuing chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:4

Not all Christians have understood the Plan of Salvation in this larger view of a cosmic conflict over the character and government of God. Even the great theologians of the Reformation did not see things in this way. Luther, for example, was preoccupied with God’s gracious provisions to save you and me. One reason Luther does not emphasize the larger view is that he was unable to make much use of the book of Revelation. Luther correctly insisted that we should use “the Bible and the Bible only” (Sola Scriptura), but he himself was not able to use all sixty-six books. He particularly regarded Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation as inferior to the other books in the New Testament. In the book of Revelation he said he found “too little about Christ, and too much no one could understand.” And then he summarized, “there’s no way the Holy Spirit could have inspired this book!” But as a result of not being able to use the book of Revelation, he missed the larger view, as do many of his admirers today.

Some of us though, have been greatly helped by Luther in placing the Bible as the highest of all authorities. We have done what Luther recommended and we’ve studied the Bible seriously, not just sixty-two books or fewer, but all sixty-six. We have learned to read the Bible as a whole, and relate all its parts to the one central theme, the revelation of the truth about God in the great controversy. I have had the privilege of leading groups through all sixty-six Bible books more than a hundred times. Every time I do this it becomes even clearer to me that the Bible is an inspired record of how God handled the crisis in His family. I think if Luther were alive today, he too might rejoice in the larger view.

There are no shortcuts to trust, or the Bible would be a much briefer book. Claims prove nothing. Even when a person has been falsely accused of being untrustworthy, it is only by the demonstration of trustworthiness over a long period of time, and under a great variety of circumstances, especially difficult ones, that trust can be re-established and confirmed.

The Bible records just such a demonstration, beginning with the entrance of sin into the universe and climaxing with the death of Christ on the cross. My understanding is that Christ died to re-establish peace in God’s family. The apostle Paul explained the purpose of the cross, and why Jesus had to die, in a number of passages. Look at Colossians 1:19-20, for example:
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (RSV)

The word “reconcile” here means to atone, to bring to unity. Note also where peace is made. It is at the cross. Let’s look at the same text in another version:

For it was by God’s own decision that the Son has in himself the full nature of God. Through the Son, then, God decided to bring the whole universe back to himself. God made peace through his Son’s death on the cross, and so brought back to himself all things, both on earth and in heaven. (TEV)

Notice two other passages in Ephesians that make the same point. Ephesians 1:9, 10 reads:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. (RSV)

Here we have a glimpse of the ending of the war, when God’s purpose is fulfilled and the whole universe will be united. Uniting all things is the opposite of war; when you have unity you also have peace. Now the other text, Ephesians 3:9, 10:

. . . and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places. (RSV)

According to Ephesians, the way God is demonstrating the truth about Himself and winning the war is through His church, through His people. This is explained in a dramatic way in another of Paul’s letters, in 1 Corinthians 4:9: “. . . we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels and to men.” (RSV) The Greek word for spectacle is theatron, from which we get “theater.” Some saints might be reluctant to attend the theater, but Paul tells us we live in a theater all the time. God’s stage. And on this stage He is demonstrating the truth about Himself by the way He is dealing with His church.

God includes the whole family in the results of this demonstration. Look at John 12:32:
“When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to me.” (TEV) The TEV here expresses the real meaning of the original. The word for “all men” is not limited to human beings. It is the word for the entire universe; everyone and everything. Not just people on this planet, but even the loyal angels, I believe, were drawn closer to God by this costly demonstration. These verses say to me that Christ died for sinless angels too. And they certainly needed no forgiveness or adjustment of their legal standing. Yet the Bible says they needed the message of the cross as well.

Our Role in The Cosmic Conflict

Continuing chapter one of Conversations About God, by Graham Maxwell, edited from the oral text by Jon Paulien.

Conversations About God 1:3

Whether we want to be or not, all of us are now caught up in the consequences of this cosmic conflict regarding the character and government of God. Everyone in the universe is unavoidably involved. And the future of God’s family, to which we all belong, depends upon the outcome of this war. Compared with God’s solution of this problem, our own personal salvation, while important, is relatively inconsequential. For if God does not win this war, who would want to be saved?

For God to win this war, however, does not leave out our salvation. The way God has worked to win you and me is the same as the way in which He won the war among the angels. In other words, the methods that God has used to win us back to repentance and faith (trust) are the same methods that have led the unfallen universe to tell Him He’s absolutely trustworthy. Even if He should fail to win you and me, they will trust and worship Him for the rest of eternity because of the demonstration of His goodness and trustworthiness.

So as much as God wants to save all of us, He could fail to do this and still not lose the war. For in heavenly places the war was already won two thousand years ago. All through the book of Revelation, angels are celebrating God’s victory in the war. They never cease telling Him that He’s proved Himself to be righteous and holy and just and good and infinitely worthy of their trust (Rev 5:9-12; 15:3-4). And that victory is the foundation of our salvation.

The early Christians sorely needed Revelation’s encouraging picture of the angels celebrating, because there were several serious crises among them at that time. For one thing, the Second Coming seemed to be indefinitely delayed. They thought He would come around 50 A.D. and Paul had to tell them, “No, not yet” (2 Thess 2:1-3). There were still more things to happen (2 Thess 2:4-12). But by the 90’s Jesus had still not returned. And besides this, there were heresies in the church. Some, for example, were teaching that Christ had not really come in human form. He had not really suffered and died. He had faked it all. For that reason, they were sometimes called the Docetists (from the Greek word for “seeming to be”). And then there was great opposition, and serious persecution. Not only that, the apostles were all dead, except one. And he was the elderly John, now a prisoner on the Isle of Patmos. What good news was there to encourage the early Christians?

You can count on God, when things are that bleak, to send a message of encouragement and explanation to His people. He surely wouldn’t send a book of mysteries and dates and schedules of events that they could not possibly understand. Rather, the sixty-sixth Bible book that God did send is titled “Revelation,” or “Clarity.” The book of Revelation is an invitation to discouraged early Christians to look a little higher, to take the larger view of things. It helped them see how they’d all been caught up in a vast conflict that affects the whole universe! And that it’s a conflict over God’s own character and government.

Not only that, as you read through the book of Revelation you see that God has already won this war, and the angels in heaven all agree with Him. This is the good news. Revelation also invites us to join in the celebration; and then to go out to the world and invite all who are willing to listen, to join in God’s victory in the war. When Christians discover this larger view of things, they don’t need to be on the defensive all the time; they have good news to tell. There is no way God and His side can lose. The invitation of the Bible’s sixty-sixth book is to join the winning side.

The book of Revelation also says that you can count on God to wait until this truth about Him, this good news about His character and government, has been spread all over the world. God is the kind of person who will wait until His children have had an opportunity to understand the issues in the war. He wants them to be ready for the awesome events the Bible describes as taking place before Jesus’ return. The highest privilege of God’s friends on this planet today is to understand and to present the plan of salvation in the larger setting of the great controversy.

Summing up, the first step in the journey of faith is to recognize that we are sinners and that we need to be saved. It is understandable, therefore, that at first we might be preoccupied with what God has done in order that we might be saved. But as we grow in the journey of faith, and our knowledge of the Bible deepens, and we learn to take the Bible as a whole. It then becomes apparent that our own personal salvation (important as that is) is only a small part of a far larger picture that involves the peace and security of the whole vast universe. It involves the confirmation of the truth about our God Himself.

Fundamental Belief Number 8 (Great Controversy)

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. This conflict originated in heaven when a created being, endowed with freedom of choice, in self-exaltation became Satan, God’s adversary, and led into rebellion a portion of the angels. He introduced the spirit of rebellion into this world when he led Adam and Eve into sin. This human sin resulted in the distortion of the image of God in humanity, the disordering of the created world, and its eventual devastation at the time of the worldwide flood, as presented in the historical account of Genesis 1-11. Observed by the whole creation, this world became the arena of the universal conflict, out of which the God of love will ultimately be vindicated. To assist His people in this controversy, Christ sends the Holy Spirit and the loyal angels to guide, protect, and sustain them in the way of salvation. (Gen. 3; 6-8; Job 1:6-12; Isa. 14:12-14; Ezek. 28:12-18; Rom. 1:19-32; 3:4; 5:12-21; 8:19-22; 1 Cor. 4:9; Heb. 1:14; 1 Peter 5:8; 2 Peter 3:6; Rev. 12:4-9.  (Rev. 12:4-9; Isa. 14:12-14; Eze. 28:12-18; Gen. 3; Rom. 1:19-32; 5:12-21; 8:19-22; Gen. 6-8; 2 Peter 3:6; 1 Cor. 4:9; Heb. 1:14.)

Aside from the re-arrangement of the biblical texts, the major change in this fundamental was the addition of a sentence that could have been placed in FB6, “as presented in the historical account of Genesis 1-11.” I understand that there were two reasons for placing the statement here instead. First, it is the only place in the 28 FBs where the Flood is mentioned. Second, since this fundamental also mentions creation, it made it possible to reference Genesis 1-11 as a whole and not just the chapters related to the Flood. While many scholars have questioned whether the primary intention of Genesis 1-11 is history, this sentence certainly expresses how the average Seventh-day Adventist views these chapters.

This statement opens with the phrase “all humanity,” but that by itself is open to misunderstanding. The entire universe is involved in the great controversy and is affected by its outcome (Col 1:20; Eph 1:9-10; Rev 12:7-10), as the sentences that follow in the statement make clear. The ultimate outcome of the controversy is the vindication of God’s character of love. The statement leaves ambiguous, however, just how or by whom God’s love is vindicated. It is interesting that while the worldwide flood is mentioned here, the cross is not! From the Adventist perspective, the cross is more about theodicy (vindicating the character of God or defending God’s reputation) than it is about soteriology (how people get saved). Recent scholarship affirms that even Romans and Galatians are more about God and His character than what Luther saw in them, a revelation of how we get saved.

A key text upon which this statement is based is Revelation 12. At first glance Revelation 12 seems to be about a war against aggression and rebellion. How do you reconcile the self-sacrifice of the cross with such an aggressive story? A closer look at Revelation 12 makes clear that the battle language there is metaphorical. It is not a war fought with tanks and planes and guns, the great controversy is a war of words. The tail of the dragon (Rev 12:4) reminds the reader of prophets telling lies (Isa 9:15). The ancient serpent of 12:9 recalls the Garden of Eden where the serpent spewed out deceptive words (Gen 3:1-6). The method of the dragon’s attack in heaven is to accuse the “brethren” (Rev 12:10). And he is overcome by “the word of their testimony” (Rev 12:11). The battle language is the metaphorical backdrop to a war of words.

A Loma Linda perspective on this Fundamental focuses on the picture of God that human beings hold. God is not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be. He is not arbitrary, vengeful, unforgiving and severe. Instead He is both infinitely powerful and infinitely gracious. Not everything that religion says about God is true and some of the things even Christian religion says about God make Him look bad in the eyes of the world. God is often portrayed with a character more like that of Satan. So a major theme in Adventist evangelism is that everyone, including Christians, need to critique their own religion. Human beings do not, by nature, gravitate to an accurate picture of God. And if all who want to know God are willing to exchange what they think they know for truth, it will bring us all closer together.

There are practical implications of this picture of God for patient care. In more traditional types of chaplaincy, people are encouraged to think of death as simply part of life. When people are suffering, Jesus is portrayed as a sustaining presence more than as a healing one. There is also a desire to avoid doctrine at the bedside. While these points make sense in general, at Loma Linda we find it helpful in many cases to go further. While doctrine may not normally be appropriate at the bedside, it can at times be important for the chaplain to explore with a patient. Chaplains need to minister to a patient on the basis of the spiritual resources the patient brings with them. And in a world of great diversity, the chaplain needs broad spiritual and doctrinal understanding in order to be able to minister to many different types of people.

It is also true that there are occasions where what the patient believes is itself a source of suffering and can make both the dying process and the healing process harder than it needs to be. Patients often believe that they are sick because God is punishing them. While a doctor or a chaplain may not want to get into the details with a patient, the great controversy motif gives the caregiver the confidence to gently confront destructive doctrines with a message of God’s love and care even for those who have made a mess of their lives. The great controversy offers a perspective for understanding some of the difficult stories in the Bible that may be part of a negative narrative in a patient’s life.

In the Adventist view, the essential nature of God’s character is love. And for love to occur, it needs to be freely chosen. Love that is commanded or forced is not love. In creating the universe God was expanding the circle of love that was always there among the members of the Trinity. But for His creatures to truly love God they had to be free to do so. And being free to love meant they were also free to rebel and reject God’s love. God so highly values the freedom of His creatures, that He allows them the freedom to choose and also the freedom to reap the consequences of their choices. That means that God does not will that people be sick or die. Sickness and death are the consequences of freedom and illustrations of what happens when freedom is exercised in rebellion and self-centeredness. People are not sick because God is angry with them or because he is punishing them (although He can use misfortune to get our attention), suffering is a natural consequence of the present human condition. Suffering does not exist because God is evil or weak, it exists because God values freedom above all else. And one day the universe will be healed and safe, not by superior force, but through the abundant evidence that the universe is ruled by self-sacrificing love.

The Great Controversy motif also has powerful implications for geopolitical issues today. Some ask the question, Is Islam a religion of peace or a religion of violence? In light of the Great Controversy that is the wrong question. There is a universal conflict between God and Satan. That conflict is being played out in every nation and every religion. The line between good and evil is not between “us” and “them,” it runs right down the middle of every religion and every person. That means God is at work within Islam, and so is Satan. God is at work in Christianity, and so is Satan. God is at work within Adventism, and so is Satan. Because of the cosmic conflict, Islam can be a religion of peace and a religion of violence at the same time, because both God and Satan are at work in the hearts of Muslims. This FB has powerful implications for many aspects of religion.

Combating Terrorism

Recently I presented on the above topic at the first public health conference since the shootings in San Bernardino (which were perpetrated at a social gathering of public health officials). I spoke alongside a couple of muslim scholars representing biblical scholars who are also interested in the Qur’an and Islam. I suggested that Muslims and I share three core convictions that are pertinent to the issue of combating terrorism. I sense that my Muslim co-panelists agreed with me enthusiastically.

The first conviction is that there is a cosmic conflict, or cosmic jihad as Muslims might call it, between good and evil, God and Satan. In texts like Revelation 12, Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28, Genesis 3 and Job 1 and 2, the Bible draws back the curtain to reveal behind the conflicts of this earth a universe-wide conflict over God’s character and government. Various aspects of this cosmic “jihad” are also clearly expressed in the Qur’an (1:1-4; 7:11-15, 20-22; 15:39; 17:62-65; 25:52; 26:94-98; 30:11-14; 59:19), building on the earlier prophetic revelations in the Bible. This large theme tells me that there is a battle between good and evil at the heart of every religion, including Islam. Every religion has the capacity for good or for evil. To simply say Islam is a religion of peace or Islam is a religion of violence is not an adequate analysis. Islam is part of the battleground in the cosmic conflict or jihad. Any analysis of the history of Christianity will affirm the same there. All religions here on earth are battlegrounds in the cosmic conflict.

Second, God is a God of love and love requires freedom in order to be truly love. So human beings have been created with the freedom to love God and each other or to be rebellious and violent. That means that there is no compulsion in true religion. The religion that has God’s approval is one that values human freedom and does not coerce. And a God of love and freedom does not normally intervene to interrupt the consequences of human rebellion. Hence the terrorists have the freedom to do their work with all of its horrible consequences for the innocent as well as the guilty (Gen 2:17-17; 3:11; Deut 30:19; Josh 24:15; John 8:32-36; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 5:1, 13; Qur’an 2:256; 4:115; 16:125-128; 17:62-65). Furthermore, the lack of religious freedom in most muslim countries is the work of the evil one rather a manifestation of true faith.

Third, it is a law of life that we become like the God we worship. If we believe that God is arbitrary, punitive, judgmental and severe, we ourselves will become more and more like that. If we believe that God is loving, gracious, forgiving and merciful, we will become more and more like that. In their actions the terrorists betray a horrific view of God, and since they believe that their theology is right, their actions reveal what they think God is like and what God approves. While there are many texts in both the Bible and the Qur’an that have been used to justify such a violent God, both sacred texts climax with a very different picture. The high point of the Bible on this question is John 14:9. There Jesus affirms, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” The life of Jesus, in its love, mercy, kindness and self-sacrifice, is a picture of what the Christian God is truly like. Likewise, in the Qur’an, the high point is in The Opening to the Qur’an (al Fatiha), 1:1-4. The character of Allah is there summarized in two words, merciful and compassionate (compare with Exodus 34:6-7). The God of the Qur’an is not a monster, but is gracious and compassionate toward humanity. In fact, this description of God is at the head of all but one of the suras (chapters) in the Qur’an and the rest of the Qur’an needs to be read with that picture of God in mind. The two high point passages referenced above have many counterparts in both sacred texts. Violent humans have cherry-picked sacred texts for centuries to justify evil actions. But at the core of the Bible and the Qur’an are affirmations of a gracious God. How one reads is a choice, and we become like the God we worship.

Followers of ISIS and al Qaeda might be comfortable in general with the first point. They would see themselves as God’s true warriors, fighting the cosmic jihad for Him on this earth. But the God that they are fighting for is nothing like the God introduced in the opening phrase of the Qur’an. And they certainly do not respect the freedom of any who disagree with them. Their use of sacred texts is selective in the extreme, and the God they worship has all the characteristics of Satan: He is punitive, judgmental, violent, and hates His enemies. In the service of God it is possible to behave like the Enemy (compare Rev 16:2).