In his book Farewell to God (1), Charles Templeton outlines the reasons for his transition from a Princeton University educated Christian evangelist and pastor, working with Billy Graham, to that of an agnostic. Primary among his reasons was the problem of evil. He articulates some perennial questions.
These are issues of theodicy, which often offers less than persuasive answers(3). The predominant Christian position had roots in early Greek thinking, but later became integrated into Christian theology by St. Augustine, and thereafter was also picked up by John Calvin. This general approach is sometimes known as the “divine sovereignty” or “blueprint” model, and is so named because it views God as exercising complete and absolute sovereignty over the world and universe in all its minute detail. Consequently, all that happens, both the good and the bad, is deemed to be a part of a larger divine plan.
This position understands that whatever happens—for good or not—a loving God uses to achieve a higher good purpose. Because of the way these understandings are framed, the problem of tragedy has traditionally been one of formulating a loving and good purpose behind tragic events—i.e., what humans perceive as evil, bad, or tragic, actually serves a specific divine purpose. Consequently, this view holds that the human problem is one of limited perspective, with an inability to see the grand scope of God’s overarching plan(4). The dilemma then in elevating God’s sovereignty in this way is that it logically implicates him for everything that we would characterize as wrong with the world, and this reality forces the exponents of this view to face its main problem—that is, harmonizing a good God with a world that is very flawed(5).
Some find solace in the notion that an episode of tragedy, death or destruction is part of God’s plan and that only if the finite humans could see the larger picture it would all be acceptable. This well-meaning attempt to exalt God by holding up his exhaustless sovereignty, ironically, becomes the context from which God gets locked into responsibility for all of the horrific things that happen in the world, along with that which is so contrary to life and human concepts of love, goodness and justice. Certainly if we embrace God’s exhaustless sovereignty when faced with a natural disaster on the scale of the 2004 tsunami, or the recent Japan disaster, God’s goodness must necessarily be called into question―and for good reason. Surely a sovereign God who is good and controls all things would not allow such catastrophes to occur. Charles Templeton and many others have concluded to the negative. But would God?
So this, then, is the basis for one of the leading criticisms that can be made against the divine sovereignty motif. In this connection, Gregory A. Boyd, an evangelical Christian scholar notes:
while we wax eloquent in declaring how the intricate design and grand beauty of the cosmos is evidence of an all-good Creator, in honesty we must also confess that the world is full of occurrences that evidence either the nonexistence of a good and all-powerful God, or the existence of a very powerful, competing, evil god (6).
While on the faculty at Loma Linda University a number of years ago I had the privilege of being introduced to this more sophisticated version of the cosmic conflict theme. It was articulated by Jack Provonsha, Graham Maxwell and a few others(7). Of these two principals, each had slightly differing emphasis, yet they shared a similar construct that viewed all of human ontological reality through the prism of The Great Controversy theme. While this approach is not exclusively unique to Adventists, particularly since it hovers in the background of Scripture, a number of Adventist theologians such as those mentioned above have put a distinctly Adventist emphasis on it as providing the framework for all theology(9).
For example, both Provonsha and Maxwell used this paradigm as a framework for understanding the Atonement(8). Both of them adopted the approach articulated by Ellen White where she held the view that God’s character is on trial in the universe as part of the heavenly rebellion detailed in Scripture. This includes implications that this rebellion included charges that God was arbitrary, vengeful, exacting, and severe. In these scholar’s views, the Atonement is about divine at-one-ment, presenting to the universe the essence of the divine nature and character, rather than primarily a mechanical, transactional, or legal event as commonly understood. For Provonsha atonement theology is best understood in the parable of the prodigal son, where God takes the sinner home again and restores him/her fully into the household, unequivocally, and unconditionally(10).
Both Provonsha and Maxwell therefore had issues with a forensic understandings of the Atonement where divine justice required Jesus’ death, as part of some legal transaction. As a Greek scholar, Maxwell traced the roots of the forensic understanding of the Atonement to translating issues, where the Greek word, dikaios, used by the Apostle Paul is often translated as “just” or “justice,” but is also the same word that can be translated as “righteous”—a word much less associated as a legal term. Thus, his point was that much of the content of the Apostle Paul’s letters, including Romans, understood by many to present a legal view of the Atonement, in reality can turn on translation issues.
To frame all of theology in the context of a cosmic conflict is the essence of Ellen White'sThe Great Controversy. Given it a more philosophically-informed framework, these Adventist scholars have shown that it is possible to retain the core essence of the cosmic conflict theme by putting the Atonement, and questions of theodicy into a context that has resonance with the Bible-writers context. While some have described this approach as “the moral influence theory” put forward by Peter Abelard, those familiar with both approaches recognize that they are distinguishable. For instance, Abelard certainly did not have the cosmic conflict motif in mind with his concept. In some respects the particular cosmic conflict emphasis articulated by a number of Adventist scholars represents a uniquely Adventist contribution to theology—a contribution that may soon be buried by the fervor of fundamentalism now sweeping the Church.
The cosmic conflict theme offers perhaps the most compelling logic for the necessity of Jesus coming to earth, with him representing a living picture of the divine nature in a way that never could be accomplished in a less personal way. It also provides a much warmer picture of God, with some basis for understanding why reality is not perfect. The strength of this approach to matters of theodicy resides in its removing a loving God from the center of all that is wrong with this world.
While this philosophical approach may have a lot to recommend, I am also mindful that it comes with its own set of problems. In the next and final installment, I will tackle this matter.
—Jan M. Long, J.D., M.H.A., works for the County of Riverside, California.
Here is the first installment of this series: Three Faces of the Cosmic Conflict Metanarrative: Cultic Event-ists