Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

Searching Sabbath 08: The Great Controversy


Important note: When I shot this video, I thought I had it framed so that you could only see me from the waist up and wouldn’t see that I was wearing pajama bottoms. By the time I realized my jammies were in-frame, it was too late to re-shoot. Not a big problem in the context of the great cosmic conflict between the powers of good and evil, maybe, but still … I didn’t intend for my pajama bottoms to be on the internet. OK, now that I’ve got that off my chest, on to the 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. 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.—Fundamental Beliefs, 8


This week’s fundamental belief is one that, as I explain in the video above, was so much a part of my worldview growing up that I never questioned it or even knew that there were Christians who viewed the universe differently. Seeing things in the framework of a great cosmic conflict between God and the devil appeals to my imagination. Is that really what’s going on behind the scenes? I recognize now that the Biblical foundation for this worldview rests on a few carefully chosen Bible passages (Isaiah 14, Ezekiel 28, the first bit of Job, Revelation 12) and that these must be read through a certain interpretive lens to bring out the “Great Controversy” picture that seemed so clear to me as a child.

I’m also starting to understand, as I get older, why this view is unappealing to some people. Some believe it gives too much power to a literal devil. Others believe it would be unfair of God to allow billions of people to be, essentially, playing pieces in a game that’s proving a point about His character to the universe — but that allows those people to suffer horribly, sometimes for the whole of their short lives. But what’s the alternative? A universe of random evil and a God (if one exists at all) who is either powerless to stop it or refuses to do so? That’s hardly more comforting, nor does it create a better picture of God to worship.

So I stick with the Great Controversy picture of the cosmos despite its troubling weaknesses. But I’m interested in what others believe too, and how they explain the problem of evil in the face of a loving God. Because that’s what the doctrine of the Great Controversy really is: it’s Adventist theodicy, our attempt to explain why in a universe created by a good God, horrible things happen. Our answer is, ultimately, look at the big picture. We’re playing a long game here; ultimately your suffering will be vindicated and glory will be yours. Does that “big picture” thinking comfort you or seem remote when everything’s falling to pieces in your life?

I guess one of my struggles is that I’ve lived a pretty comfortable, easy life, with not a lot of suffering (so far). So when I say, “Oh, we’re all part of a great cosmic experiment; God’s justice is being vindicated in the eyes of the whole universe and His way will be proved right in the end!” I hear the voice of some starving person on the other side of the world whisper, “Easy for you to say!” And yet it seems like parts of the world where people have experienced the most horrific suffering are often much quicker to embrace a theology that says that justice and reward are coming at some future time, than we in the West who like our rewards here and now, thank you very much.

What do you think?


14 thoughts on “Searching Sabbath 08: The Great Controversy

  1. I think it is time to just let this one go. Face it; there is no scriptural backing for this doctrine. It comes purely from EGW. You are correct that the verses given in support of this complex and intricately woven mythology are too hopelessly vague to give credence to what we’ve developed into a “fundamental.”

    First, the doctrine says that the reason given for this drama is to prove God’s character to his other creations. Aside from the total lack of any biblical evidence for this, with even just a little thought this supposition begs credulity. These other created beings have been with God for longer than we have, eons even and as “unfallen” have personal access to her. Given this time of direct and personal interaction with the Creator, they still question his character? They’re just sitting on the sidelines waiting to see who wins? I can see having questions about a divinity you never see or for which you don’t have any direct evidence, but otherwise?

    Second, just how much suffering does it take to convince said beings? True, our mythology states that the convincing was completed at the cross but even still. . .

    And third, this view also envisions a perfect and unfallen universe. As was discussed in my comment on creation, this too is in question.

    Part of the issue here will also come under the fundamental on EGW. But till then, I’ll just say that All doctrine MUST be based on scripture and ONLY scripture. If it is not then we cannot claim to be Christians. Our Great Controversy, while intellectually appealing in some ways, fails this test. It is not much different than those who believe in the rapture – while we believe there is weak or no scriptural support there, the same can be said for the GC.

    I have no problem if someone wants to believe this as an explanation for the world as they see it. However, I do believe it is wrong to say, THIS IS THE TRUTH.

    Fundamentally the veracity of this doctrine comes down to two points: 1. The degree of faithfulness to solo scriptorium and, 2. One’s view of God. Is God infinite and omniscient? I don’t know if you’ve ever read Richard Rice’s the “The Openness of God.” It was initially printed by R&H but is now banned. (However, it is available on Amazon from a different publisher) There are many problems with a God who is all knowing and all powerful. If God is the creator, how can she be omniscient? The act of creating is at its heart an act of learning. Also, the act of creating can’t help but change the creator. If either of these points is not true then there is no point at all to creating. Can the omniscient learn? Can the infinite change? Can the created manipulate the Creator?

    One test of doctrine, I believe, it its universality through time – how it is applicable to all generations. Given this, it might also be worthwhile to consider the influence of politics on this particular belief. By “politics” I mean political systems. Central to the idea of the GC is “freedom of choice.” Freedom of personal choice didn’t arise as a thought system until the advent of modern democracy culminating with the rise of America as a nation. Until then individuals were regulated to their roles and positions in society. Personal choice in the form of political governance, profession, and even geographic location as a concept was almost absent from societal thought. Consider what personal freedom would have meant to a feudal serf bending knee at mass.

    However, with the age of enlightenment came the rise of individual choice as a philosophy which in turn helped bring about the birth of the United States. It was out of this political milieu that this doctrine came into being. Personally, I find it appealing to have the idea of individual freedom at the heart of a doctrine. But at the same time I must also admit that this is a modern concept and so while intellectually drawn to it I must also realize it is not universal.

    Finally, it is this doctrine that lays the foundation for placing SDAs at the center of end-time geo-political events, a concept with which I also have difficulty. But this too is for a future fundamental.

    So if the GC is too full of holes to be taken seriously, then the question is what replaces it? Is there a view that explains evil that gives meaning to “this trivial of woe?” I do have some ideas on this but for now, it is probably best to say, “I don’t know.” I prefer this route because to take the other (such as the “I’ll stick with this for now” view) locks me into a certain track where I must accept particular suppositions that I find more discomforting.

    • I don’t find it as “full of holes” as you do, Evert, because I do think it’s one of the more plausible explanations for a basically inexplicable world. But I do see the validity of a lot of the points you raise.

      Interesting point about freedom of choice. As a historical novelist I’m constantly aware of the need to be aware of how the mindsets of people in the past differed from ours — it’s so easy just to assume they thought the way we do. I think there’s also a danger of carrying it too far and assuming they were completely different. I don’t think the concept of individual freedom was completely absent in the ancient world, only that they didn’t prioritize it the way we do. And also, of course, that they would have assumed any concept of “freedom” applied only to male landowners who were of the majority race and religion.

      But in the context of that ancient-world mindset — of everyone having their appointed place in society, their role to play, and that being set from generation to generation — isn’t the tale of Abram setting out from Ur into an unknown land following an unknown God, a far more amazing tale than we think it is?

      I don’t know why I thought of that — it doesn’t have much to do with the great controversy theory — it just popped into my head once I headed off on the tangent of wondering how much the ancients really thought of individuals as having “free will.”

      • Do you basically accept the doctrine because “it provides a plausible explanation” or because you are comfortable with its scriptural support?

        As for Abram, not to take anything away from the story, but the nomadic life was a part and parcel of that culture. Now what sort of life Abram had before the beginning of his journey is only speculation. Since your are a reader and writer of historical fiction, have you read “Son of Laughter” by Frederick Beuechner?

      • It’s a bit of both, I guess. I do think it’s ONE valid way to read Scripture, and it works for me in a narrative sense (and I do tend to take a narrative view of how to understand the Bible). But I do understand some of the problems and issues people have.

        Re Abram: Obviously people were nomads back then but the story is not written as the story of a nomad making a usual and expected migration. Whatever Abram actually did, the writer of Genesis wanted us to picture a man leaving being everything familiar and striking out in a completely unexpected direction in response to a personal, individual call from a deity. This suggests to me that the writer of Genesis had a fairly high view of individual free will as a motivating force.

        I don’t know if “Son of Laughter” is the Buechner book I tried to read or not. I know that although I love isolated quotes from Buechner that other people reference, I’ve never got on very well with trying to read his books — something about his style doesn’t draw me in.

  2. The jammies don’t bother me a bit, but the IV port does! What’s that about, girl? You okay?

    To me, if we submit as evidence of God’s character life and its trials, we’ll never be satisfied that God is good. But if we submit as evidence the Cross, the ultimate expression of God’s unselfishness, we’ll be satisfied in this way: The Cross says God would do anything for our good. Anything. If God would do anything for our good, then we must assume that the bad that comes to us is unavoidable, There must be no other way for God to ultimately do the good He died to accomplish for us.

    Kind of like a parent who must carry a child through flames to escape a burning building. The parent’s death proves his love. The child may look at her burns and question the love of the parent, but only if she didn’t turn around, see the charred house and the corpse of her parent, and put two and two together.

    • Sorry, not only did I forget I was wearing my jammies I forgot to remove my band-aid. I gave blood earlier in the day. Not only am I fine, I have health enough to share with others!!

      Great image with the burning building, Jennifer. Obviously I’ll have to get to the question of the cross and how it demonstrates God’s love in an upcoming video.

  3. As a fan of fantasy, I have no problem in believing in a cosmic struggle between good and evil. I do think that the SDA notion of the Great Controversy isnt as Biblically sound as we’d like to believe. Also it creates a rather troubling image of a god preoccupied with vindicating his name, something which makes his every interaction with humanity’s “test subjects” suspect. And the thought that the entire universe has me under clinical observation just feeds my innate paranoia! I guess this is yet another of those areas where we see through a glass dimly – we can tell there is something bigger than our own little struggles, but the exact details are fuzzy.

    • Yes Sharon, I think you’ve put your finger both on what’s troubling and what’s necessary about this doctrine. I think we need the sense that there is a “bigger picture” — but any possible “bigger picture” theory, like the Great Controversy, necessarily includes elements we won’t be comfortable with.

      As a fan of fantasy, have you ever read Stephen Donaldson’s “The Mirror of Her Dreams” and “A Man Rides Through”? For many years that was one of my favourite fantasy series and I reread it several times. At one point I concluded that (among other things) the story was trying to address the problem of theodicy, with the king as a stand-in for God in the story. I’m not sure I should say more for fear of spoilering it, but I think it addresses quite nicely the problem of a powerful leader who has an overall “big-picture” strategy for defeating his enemy — but is confronted with the human cost of using that strategy.

      • Nothing like being tardy with my response. 🙂 I haven’t read the Donalson books, but I’ll get hold of a copy. They sound throught-provodking. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. Trudy, you need a “like” button.

  5. There are some significant problems with this particular theological point of view—one of which is that it portrays God and Satan in a very dualistic manner. In some ways, the concept is similar to American politics. There is always a continuous struggle between Democrats and Republicans, and the votes (in the case of dualism, the prayers) of the people actually determine the outcome. Victory or defeat is in the hands of the people!

    Adventism takes a lot of direction regarding this great dualistic struggle from Ellen White’s epic book The Great Controversy, which was based on one of her most famous mystic visions. This war in heaven perspective deeply shapes Adventist doctrine, so the SDA Church is always looking for new ways to make this Great Controversy viewpoint fresh and relevant for the times.

    One example of this attempt at relevancy was a particularly disturbing Signs Of The Times cover from September 2004 which showed Jesus, in requisite white robe and sandals, with a light saber in his hand, duking it out with Satan in a very Luke Skywalker battles Darth Vader kind of manner. Relevant to the times? Yes. In good taste? Doubtful. But it did illustrate in an eye-catching manner the dualistic struggle between God and Satan dogma that was being promoted.

    After years of study, I have come to realize that a created being who is a mere speck compared to its Creator, and who draws its actual life from that same Creator cannot in any way be a major player in any so-called controversy! The concept does not even compute! You might as well compare the Earth to Sol, our sun. Besides being much smaller, the Earth has no light or power of its own; any life and power it sustains is dependent on the light and heat of the sun.

    It is unfortunate that so much of today’s Christianity, as illustrated by Frank Peretti’s fictitious novel “This Present Darkness” based on fantasy, focuses on “The Enemy” and his assumed attributes—his great power, influence, authority, and so on. We are bombarded with stories about this “struggle between the powers of good and darkness.”

    Unfortunately, Almighty God’s vast authority and power is lost in the wreckage of this dualistic nonsense. Instead of standing in awe of a mighty Creator and Ruler who bows to no one and is in no way threatened by us or by anything, we have created a god who has been dumbed-down to the point of lunacy; stripped and emasculated of all power, held hostage by a pitchfork-wielding, horned Enemy who is the “god of this world” or even the “god of this age.” We remove any responsibility for obedience from our message, and we state vehemently that if any bad thing happens, it is because The Enemy “is out to get us.” (Ironically, we also figure that if things are going well and bad things are not happening to us, that The Enemy is not out to get us because we are doing something spiritually wrong and are no longer a threat!)

    When considering the Biblical story of Job, we never really focus on the fact that for every action Satan made, he had to obtain God’s express consent. There are records in Scripture of God sending evil spirits on people, to lie to people and persecute them. God Almighty sent these evil spirits; God did not just allow them to attack! Yet Christianity has to support such a sanitized version of a namby-pamby God that we cannot wrap our heads around the fact that our God will sometimes send evil spirits to do His bidding, to work His purposes—and furthermore, these evil beings, who draw their life from God just as you and I do, obey!

    In addition, we insist that the God of the Universe has something to PROVE to us in this whole “Great Controversy.” We never consider that the Creator of all does not have to prove a single thing to those He created. He does not have to explain Himself or His actions! If He does, then there is a natural or universal law at work that is even higher than our God is.

    We are not, in our limited finite understandings, able to comprehend why God is doing what He is doing because His understandings are so far above ours. This is the essential message of the book of Job (itself an allegory):

    “Listen buddy, I tossed together a handful of molecules to make you. Yes, I did that. I don’t need to explain to you why I do what I do; I gave you life, I can take it away. You exist at my pleasure. When you can create yourself out of nothing, then we might have something to talk about. Until then, I don’t need to explain myself to you. Grow up and get over it.”

    In our efforts to understand a God who is too far above us to even comprehend, all that we have managed to do is remake God into something that is easier for us to grasp and fathom. First, we’ve recast God into the image of someone, like an all-powerful human being or spiritual superman who lives in this place called Heaven. We see this God as not one, but three gods; two sitting on thrones with a third god that floats around in some ghost-like manner. Second, we’ve stripped God of His TRUE awe and power and dumbed Him down to something we can more easily get our minds around; something we are more comfortable with. We’ve invented something that makes us feel better when we see God’s evil at work in the world. No, it’s not a comforting thought to hear God say,

    “I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, AHYH, do all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7 NIV 1984; Note that the term translated as “disaster” within the NIV is רע (ra`) in the Hebrew which means, literally: evil, distress, misery, injury, calamity.)

    Subsequently, we massage this understanding by saying, “Oh, God just allows evil to happen, He doesn’t actually bring it!” Poppycock! If God actively allows evil to happen, then God is complicit in it! This is an example of believers attempting to revise the reality of who and what God is in order to make themselves somehow feel better about a God who is not just warm and fuzzy, but truly dangerous! In the process, we have turned God into this spiritual Santa Clause of sorts while attempting to ignore the fact that God is at times quite unsafe.

    At the heart of it, man’s ultimate struggle is not with Satan but with God, as Satan cannot do anything without God’s approval.

    Herein lies the crux of the difference between Christianity’s God and Judaism’s God. Because of this Great Controversy dualism, Christianity’s God has no shades of gray. Christianity’s God would never bring calamity, is incapable of deception (i.e. lying), would never actually send an evil spirit to do anything, and does not truly know the end from the beginning. Christianity’s God is limited in many ways and must learn from his actions, His mistakes! So badly does Christianity’s god mess up that he also changes his mind (and his covenant) if he figures out that what he has done is just not working. He is so fickle that he changes his chosen people at the drop of a hat, blessing his second chosen people for doing the very thing that he rejected his first chosen people for doing!

    Judaism’s God, on the other hand, is harder to stereotype. There seem to be a lot more shades of gray, more things that cannot be understood, and above all, less certainty that you actually know or can predict this Being. Despite the fact that He doesn’t need or want sacrifice to forgive, Judaism’s God seems more dangerous somehow, mainly because He is unpredictable and will do some rather drastic things in an effort to get His point across to an un-listening generation.

    Ancient Jews realized that God was the only one that mattered. They did not worry about an Enemy that was the “god of this world” that was “out to get them;” their epic struggle was not with this Satan (Adversary), but with God Himself, as the entire book of Job and Jacob’s nighttime struggle both aptly illustrate. At the end of the day, they accepted that they might never know the answers to why bad things happened to them. They were content in the knowledge that God was in control. This was God’s world, and they needed to trust that God had their best interests at heart.

    It is my belief that “The Great Controversy” is in fact just “The Great Con”. Man’s struggle is not in fact with some nameless, faceless enemy but with the God who created him. God is the one in power, and God is the one with whom we should worry about being right with. We have utterly lost sight of the Authoritative Creator that Job actually discovered; the Ruler who challenged,

    ““Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him? Let him who accuses God answer him!” (Job 40:2)

    • I think you are oversimplifying the Christian concept of God but it’s probably true that there are far more gray areas in the Jewish concept of God. That said, while I admire the faith of many Jews I know, if I were not able to believe that God loved us like Jesus loved people, I would probably not want to bother with the concept of a God at all. Is God the source of evil as well as good?

  6. What do we do with texts like Isaiah 45:7 if we only want to look at a warm, tucky view of God? If God is subject to Satan’s whims, then is God really in control? Why cannot God LOVE us with an everlasting love WHILE disciplining us as needed?

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