Adventism Tomorrow, Part 5: Rehabilitating Satan
By Jack Hoehn | 23 April 2018 |
There is a confluence of ideas coming from within and without the Seventh-day Adventist church that suggest places this church can go with its theology and mission. Jack wants to talk with you about some of them. (This article is # 5 of a series; other are linked at end of this article*.)
I’ve suggested previously that common ideas about God that came from classical philosophy and were adopted into post-Constantine Christianity are not supported by the Biblical God revealed in the Old and especially the New Testament of the Bible.
There is no denying that the God of the Old Testament Bible can be presented as a “fearful deity,” with motives and behaviors apparently contradicted by the “Father” Jesus reveals in his life and on his cross. Explaining this difference in my home are overfull shelves of books spilling out of a small office-sized library to other rooms in my house. Some of these books have focused my thinking on God more than others.
Valued Theological Guides
I have a section of shelf with all of Leslie Hardinge’s books that I can find. Dr. Hardinge informed my youthful God as a PUC religion professor. His brilliant mind and inerrant approach to scripture and Ellen White was bracing, challenging, interesting, and exciting. His approach also has not been fully sustainable as life has gone on, but I appreciate his introduction to the greatness and awe of God and inspiration.
C.S. Lewis books guided my God thinking into fruitful and pleasant pastures, and I think I have most of his books, as well as other books about him. As my understanding of God deepens and widens, it has not left Lewis behind. God spoke through C.S. Lewis to my generation, and his insights have not weakened as mine have strengthened.
Adventist Ronald Osborn in his book Death Before the Fall,1 quoted a source I needed to get to know when he referenced Gregory Boyd’s masterful presentation of Satan and the Problem of Evil.2 As Adventist theologian Sigve Tonstad observed some time ago, “Satan has lost his prestige” in this modern world, even among theologians.3 But both Sigve and Greg Boyd have done their best to correct that situation.
Satan Has Lost His Prestige
Boyd’s Satan and the Problem of Evil is the best non-Adventist, fully Biblical, presentation of the centrality of the Great Controversy between Christ and Satan that I have ever read. It suggests that unless we reevaluate Satan’s significance, we cannot understand the existence of evil and the character of the God who created Lucifer with full freedom: a God who, to protect that freedom, even freedom of rebellion, empties himself of all the attributes we wanted our gods to have. He becomes angelic as Michael, human as Jesus, a poor human at that with no money, no army, no force, but the dead, non-resisting, other-cheek-turning, enemy-loving, murderer-forgiving corpus on a Crucifix!
Adventist theologian Sigve Tonstad calls this theme “Cosmic Conflict.” Greg Boyd calls it “A Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy.” Ellen White called it “The Great Controversy.” And as Boyd’s book makes abundantly clear, “The war that currently ravages the creation involves all angels and humans, but it is first and foremost a struggle between Satan and God.”4
“The theme of God striving to establish his sovereign will (his kingdom) on earth over and against forces that oppose him becomes far more prominent in the New Testament…A theme that underlies Jesus’ entire ministry is the…assumption…that creation has been seized by a cosmic force and that God is now battling this force to rescue it…[This] assumption is evident in almost everything Jesus says and does.”5
Underestimation of Satan
I think both mainstream Christianity and progressive Adventists have minimized the presence and powers God created in Lucifer, his “sum of perfection,”6 a spiritual angel created long before this planet with its lesser, physical human beings were formed. We see at creation male and female humans were given dominion over this earth. But dominion over earth had been contested “from the beginning.”7 And lost by humans in their fall. It appears this dominion was seceded to the ancient serpent. Jesus acknowledges Satan as “the prince”8 or highest power on this world. When Satan offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world,”9 Jesus did not dispute his claim that it was his offer. The New Testament confirms that the whole world is “under the power of the evil one.”10 Satan is “the god of this world”11 and “the ruler of the power of the air.”12
Boyd suggests that it is a principle of creation that a higher being can act upon natures lower than itself. As plants can act upon the ground and its minerals, so animals can act upon plants. Man can act upon animals. It appears that God gave angels power to act both on creatures lower than themselves, and also on the material nature. And this power from God appears not to have been withdrawn due to rebellion. Creating creatures free has consequences, including accepting the possibility of free opposition to the Creator.
The Lucifer Factor
“Stone-cold atheist” scientist and intellectual philosopher Howard Bloom uses as metaphor for the intrinsic selfishness at the heart of carnivorous nature the term “The Lucifer Factor.”13 He offers this as an organizing principle for understanding biology and sociology. While he and even religious thinkers consider Lucifer a “metaphor,” it is not incoherent to remember that a Satan adversary may be active even at the moment mutating in his labs pieces of DNA into new viruses, killer bacteria into new resistance to antibiotics, and learning how to make Zika viruses shrink unborn babies’ brains worse than he has been able to do with nicotine, alcohol, and methamphetamines.
“Mother Nature” is characterized by Bloom as “—a bloody bitch,” and he recites the chilling evidence of inherent evil infusing the natural world.
“Ants make war and either massacre or enslave a rival swarm. Cichlid fish gang up and attack outsiders. Myxobacteria form ‘wolf packs’ that corner and dismember prey. Groups of lizards pick on a former regal member of the clan who has become disfigured by the loss of his tail. Female bees chase an overage queen through the corridors of the hive and lunge, biting over and over until she is dead. And even rival ‘super coalitions’ of a half-dozen male dolphins fight like street gangs, often inflicting serious injuries.”14
Creation as War
The fall of Satan preceded the creation of earth.15 So as C.S. Lewis writes, “It seems to me… a reasonable supposition, that some mighty created power had already been at work for ill on the material universe, or the solar system, or at least, the planet Earth, before ever man came on the scene.”16 This may be the most reasonable explanation for why the geologic records of earth’s history from earliest layers show animals’ death by predation, famine, and disasters untold. This may explain why to preserve human freedom the Creator placed them for safekeeping into a protected Garden, where they could make their choices untraumatized by the dangerous world outside of Eden.
The Adventist prophet has introduced the idea that the Great Controversy began not on earth, but in Heaven before earth’s creation, over the planning for earth and mankind.15 The relegation (fall) of Satan to the earth from the heavenly battles is then but a continuation of the God – Satan battle over earth’s creation: in Heaven over the plans; on earth over the execution of creation.
Because creation was happening in the context of a battle over good and evil, a plan of salvation was made, “before time eternal”17 because creation of earth began with Satan as a liar and murderer, “from the beginning.”G The angelic fall introduced into the material realm a disorder seen as a distortion of God’s plan of progressive creation. The Intelligent Designer’s plans Creation Day by Creation Day are distorted by a liar and murderer; an Intelligent Destroyer, if you will.
Sin on Earth Didn’t Begin with Humans
Gregory Boyd comments:
“In one of Jesus’ parables, a farmer discovered that weeds were growing in his field alongside of the crop he had planted. Since he did not plant the weeks, he concluded, ‘An enemy has done this.’ (Mt 13:28) The point of this…has been that we should cultivate a similar critical discernment regarding the ‘field’ of the Lord’s creation. The mudslide that buries a schoolroom full of children alive; the deadly tornado that snuffs out the lives of young children as they enact an Easter pageant; the disease that slowly incapacitates the minds of three beautiful siblings, thereby cursing the spirits of their parents; the tempest that drowns a boat full of immigrants seeking freedom; the hurricane that kills…such ‘natural’ phenomena cannot be regarded as ‘natural’ in a world created and governed by an all-powerful, beneficent Creator. This is not the kind of ‘seed’ that the all-loving God sows. We should in each instance conclude, ‘An enemy has done this.’”18
When Will Dominion Be Taken from Satan?
Perhaps for Adventists this Cosmic Conflict insight has been familiarized into less drama than it actually involves, but God’s character does not escape our worry, because we believe that the Creator’s control gives life to the creature. So why not pull Satan’s plug? If I have Hitler’s head in my gun sight, and refuse to pull the trigger, am I not responsible for the atrocities Hitler creates? Does not God bear product liability for the faulty creatures now in rebellion that he created?
Sigve Tonstad, in a sermon given in 2014 near Loma Linda, pointed out that in the mysterious millennium God finally locks up Satan at the second coming of Christ and spirits away the saved to the safety of heaven. We all rejoice at this prophecy, for with the bloodied martyrs we have been crying out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood…?”19
But then, having locked up Satan for a millennium, God releases him again! And the Bible text is very specific: “for he must be released!”20 Satan must be released? Why, for Heaven’s sake, why?
God’s Love is Always Freedom
Because the character of God is not the character of a human warrior king. Because God’s love does not operate by coercion or force. Heaven does not have jails or execution yards. Because persuasion, not persecution, is Heaven’s answer to sin and rebellion. Because we were created to be free, and freedom only comes freely. Satan, like you, has been given absolute freedom of choice, and when he is locked up that choice is not operable, so the God of choice will unlock Satan once again, and give him the freedom of choice he has abused for eons, until those choices destroy him.
Note, it is not God who destroys evil; it is evil that destroys evil. Fire comes from God out of heaven not as a punishment to destroy, but to clean up the dead bodies that have self-destructed. The lake of fire is not an execution, it is a purification from the bodies self-destructed by evil.
Adventists of tomorrow will fall in love with a God we have not yet fully known. And we will give new credence to the reality of spiritual warfare of truly free beings, including superhuman ones. We wrestle not with flesh and blood.
God permitted freedoms that are truly free. God refuses to use the devil’s attributes to solve the problems consequent to that freedom. Most of us do not agree with this agenda; it is not how we would solve the problem. But that is a matter to take up now with God on our knees, or later during the millennium.
- Ronald E. Osborn, Death Before the Fall—Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014).
- Gregory A. Boyd, Satan and the Problem of Evil—Constructing a Trinitarian Warfare Theodicy (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001).
- Sigve K. Tonstad, oral comment in a sermon. See also: Tonstad, Sigve K., Saving God’s Reputation: The Theological Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narratives of Revelation, Library of New Testament Studies, London: T&J Clark, 2013.
- Boyd, op. cit. page 17.
- Boyd, op. cit. page 35.
- Ezekiel 28:12
- John 8:44.
- John 12:31, 14:30, 16:11.
- Luke 4:5-6.
- 1 John 5:19.
- 2 Corinthians 4:4.
- Ephesians 2:2.
- Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle—A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995).
- Bloom, op.cit. page 24.
- Ellen G. White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 3, p. 36.
- C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), p. 135.
- 2 Timothy 1:9
- Boyd, op. cit. page 317.
- Revelation 6:9,10
- Revelation 20:3.
Jack Hoehn is a frequent contributor to both the print and online versions of Adventist Today. He has served on the Adventist Today Foundation board since 2012. He and his wife Deanne live in Walla Walla, Washington. He has a BA in Religion from Pacific Union College, and an MD from Loma Linda University. He was a licensed minister of the Adventist church for 13 years when serving as a missionary physician in Africa.