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The Great Controversy


Stephen Hawkins, that remarkable Cambridge University mathematician and cosmologist wrote in his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, (193), that were scientists to discover the long-sought “theory of everything” to explain the varying mechanisms of the universe, “we would truly know the mind of God.”

After reading that, I was intrigued with Oliver Sacks (neurologist, writing in The American Scholar, Autumn 2001, 21-32): “I could scarcely sleep for excitement the night after seeing the periodic table—it seems to me an incredible achievement to have brought the whole vast, and seemingly chaotic universe of chemistry to an-all-embracing order. . . . To have perceived an overall organization, an overarching principle uniting and relating all the elements, had a quality of the miraculous of genius. And this gave me for the first time, a sense of the transcendent power of the human mind, and the fact that it might be equipped to decipher the deepest secrets of nature, to read the mind of God.”


Of course, as a pastor and soon a college Religion professor, I was familiar with the long-existing war between Christ and Satan. And that Good would eventually triumph over Evil! After all, most Christians believe that. Further, I was most familiar with that remarkable fifth book in the Conflict of the Ages series.

But knowing all that didn’t make me any smarter than the chemistry student who got A+ for memorizing the periodic table! I could front-load my sermons and class lectures with crisp lists of biblical texts that could underwrite all the teachings I held dear. 

Yet, for years I sensed deep inside that something was missing. I could analyze the drift of Paul’s meaning in Romans and his pastoral epistles, set forth the salient issues in last-day events and describe Jesus as everyman’s Savior and Best Friend.

However, not until I committed myself to my theological doctorate and wrestled in one seminar after another with agnostics, Catholics, and an interesting clutch of Protestant scholars did it  really dawn on me that I had been given the Big Picture of how to deal with and explain some of the philosophical and theological issues that defied most.  In fact, after a while, I was asked, “Herb, what are you reading?”

The Great Controversy Theme is the organizing principle of what has come to be known as the distinctive message of Seventh-day Adventists.  It provides the glue of coherency to all of its teachings–theology, health principles (health maintenance plus the prevention and cure of disease), education, missiology, ecclesiology, social relations, environmental stewardship, etc.

I remember discussing all this with John Cobb (Claremont School of Theology) who had recognized “that any developed position is understood best when it is grasped in terms of its essential structure.  This structure in turn can be understood only as the immediate embodiment of the controlling principles of a man’s thoughts.”   After reviewing several seminal thinkers of the twentieth century, he wrote: “In each case we have seen that the philosophy employed profoundly affected the content as well as the form of the affirmation of faith.  Furthermore, the implication of the whole program is that Christian faith depends for its intelligibility and acceptance upon the prior acceptance of a particular philosophy.  In our day, when no one philosophy has general acceptance among philosophers, and when all ontology and metaphysics are widely suspect, the precariousness of this procedure is apparent.”–Living Options in Protestant Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1962), 12, 121.

Especially in thinking through interlinking subjects, such as the why of pain, suffering, and death, and the why of evil in all of its malignancies, and why an all-powerful, all-wise, always good God seems so distant in the presence of these problems—Seventh-day Adventists have a clear biblical picture of why Evil exists and how it will end.  This world view focuses on Jesus Christ—how He explained Evil and how we are to relate to it.  In so doing, we are light years from the organizing principles that frame all forms of predestination, naturalism, idealism, or existentialism.  It clearly defines the differences that separate us from other churches. 

We are not atheists who face life’s tragedies and never ask “why”—because for them life has no transcending purpose or meaning. We do not resign ourselves to karma with its endless cycle of fate—each tragedy merely the “merited results for the misdeeds of a former life.” We do not suffer heroically as a result of kismet—every misfortune decreed by God.

The uniqueness of Adventism is not some particular element of its theology; rather, it lies in its overall understanding of the central message of the Bible.  This distinctive Adventist totality of thought is configured by its seminal, governing principle–the Great Controversy Theme (GCT, or Motif).  Its focus is on the person Jesus Christ and how this focus embraces the destiny of humanity, as well as explaining the rise and end of Evil. 

This “seminal, governing principle” (of any theological or philosophical system) is similar to the latent power within the acorn.  The seed that shapes the tree contains its organizing principle.  The acorn of the oak produces an oak tree that is later easily identified by its structure. The oak tree does not look like a pine tree.  The oak tree can be easily identified by its sapling, its first branches off the stem-trunk, then the smaller branches off the main branches, and eventually its mature structure. 

An oak tree is always an integrated whole, never with built-in conflicts or contradictions such as the addition of pine or apple branches that just don’t belong. Likewise, a false or limited theological system can be recognized by its doctrinal contradictions or incoherencies, such as a belief in a God of love (reflected in Jesus) and also a belief in eternal hell fire. 

Truth unfolds like that dynamic organizing principle within the acorn of the oak or the seed of the peach.  If that conceptual seed is indeed truth, given time everyone will recognize the tree as profoundly faithful to its organizing principle.  In other words, truth is not a series of topics strung together like pearls on a string.  Truth to be truth requires the correct “seminal, governing principle” in order to produce the truth regarding the origin of evil, the cause of suffering and death, God’s antidote to sin and rebellion and the end to such misery.  For Seventh-day Adventists, that seminal, governing truth is the GCT.

Of course this is not the space to spell out all the unfolding, cohering, interlocking branches of the GCT oak. But we can describe its pregnant acorn, what its living principles are and how we may know if Jesus can say, in our day, “by their fruits you will know them.”

The central issue in the Great Controversy between God and Satan is “freedom.”  Over that mysterious word, that word that has summoned unspeakable courage, honor, and unselfishness in its defense, the well-being of the universe has been wrenched and jeopardized.  Why did God risk all on freedom? 

Themacro view of the cosmic conflict between God and Satan can be reduced to one word: freedom.  And perhaps reduced within one mysterious text: “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8; compare 1 Peter 1:19, 20).  If freedom had not been given by God to created intelligences, we would not have had Evil arise in a perfect universe.  Nor would we have had love!  Nor would the Lamb have been “slain from the foundation of the world!” (Revelation13:8). 

God put Himself at risk when He decided that love was worth the risk!  And from the beginning (as far back as anyone can possibly think) God began to pay the cost of freedom.  This decision to give freedom to created intelligent beings is probably a decision no created being would have dared to make!  Why?  Who would want to give freedom to angels or humans when it could be seen in advance how freedom would be abused? 

So why did He go ahead? Because He knew there was no other way to have a loving universe wherein trust and appreciation would flourish—unless His created intelligences had the freedom to choose. Does anyone think that I have been forced to love my wife all these years?  That somehow we have been programmed to play this game called “love” and that we did not have any choice in the matter? Hardly! 

I have performed many weddings.  I have seen love’s mystical chemistry create new dreams, fresh hopes, and noble determinations—sometimes out of unlikely material (as I looked at the star-gazing couples in my limited perspective). However, I later rejoiced to see men and women give up well-worn habits in order to adjust to life together, not because they were forced but because they were in love. But this freedom to love has its risks. 

Why is this so?  Why did organizing the universe on the principle of love become such a risk for God? Because the gift of freedom also means freedom not to love—the freedom to say either Yes or No.  Saying Yes without the freedom to say No is not love but the response of a robot.  And there is no joy, no mutual trust and appreciation, in a robot even if the robot is a perfect angel.  Freedom is God’s greatest gift to His creation. 

But the cost!  What if one loves, but is not loved back?  That is probably the greatest hurt!  Some men and women never get over the heartache of watching sweethearts or spouses walk away for someone else.  Parents never get over the anguish of watching their children go down dead-end roads, suffering the pain of unintended consequences, sooner or later.  So the question: if parents saw it all in advance, would they want children?

Yet, God saw it all in advance.  He has been paying the cost ever since.   If we want to get a peek at how much freedom has cost God, watch Jesus die!  But the Cross is only a momentary peek!  The Cross is forever the symbol of what has been happening to God since the “foundation of the world.” 

When God gave the universe freedom, He gave Himself a forever heartache.  Measure His heartache by thousands of Holocausts, such as the Jewish horror in Nazi Germany.  Think of the agony wrapped in millions of tornadoes, earthquakes, tidal waves, and zillions of wars.  How many parents have seen their children die first, many from awful diseases or accidents!  What was their anguish?  Multiply it by billions!  God saw all that and felt it all and still thought you and I and the angels were worth it!  Worth all that divine heartache that has been piling up “from the foundation of the world”!  Amazing hurt is built into love and freedom! 

Could there have been any other way?  Not if freedom was worth it for all His created beings!    Not if God wanted a universe that could respond to His love and share His glory.   God is the Cosmic Lover (1 John 4:8, 16).  The reason why He reveals Himself is because He is love and love is constantly self-communicating, seeking out those He loves, rejoicing in those who love back. 

Love can happen only when intelligent beings can respond, without coercion and in perfect freedom.  No one can be forced to love.  Love must be free to choose.  And lovers must be free to respond.  That’s why freedom and love exist only when created beings are able to respond (that is, they are response-able); they can never be un-responsible! If they respond in love to a loving God and His will (the New Testament attitude of “faith”), they, whether angels or humans, are truly responsible, fulfilling their destiny; if they say “no” to God, they are irresponsible, not un-responsible.

And that is God’s risk—a universe of people divided between those who would say Yes and those who would say No.  To make the risk even more painful and scary, He had to risk watching even His professed “bride” misuse His love and misrepresent His intentions.  

And so, as soon as He created Lucifer there was no turning back!  He was willing to be “slain from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 13:8) in order that His grand design of a universe populated with trusting, loving individuals could eventually be realized—in an eternally secure universe that would, one day, never again have a rebel say No to the overtures of love (The Desire of Ages,759).

 Further, God, the Cosmic Lover, will not give up wooing His  reluctant bride; when she begins to say Yes to His persistent Love, He begins to get her ready for the “wedding!” if she continues to say, “Yes!” (“Love never gives up,” 1 Corinthians 13:7, TEV). 

God knows two things: 1) He knows His own ability to be patient and 2) He knows that people in every generation will say Yes to His overtures and will rightly represent Him in their profession and character.  Further, 3) He knows that with the accumulated record of such people flooding the world of later generations who also are  being constantly wooed by His Spirit, eventually He will have a significant witness (Matthew 24:14) through whom and on whom He will rest His case.

He will not rest until He has “sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads” (Revelation 7:3), those who have “the Father’s name written in their foreheads. . . . These are the ones who follow the Lamb wherever He goes . . . . And in their mouth was found no guile, for they are without fault before the throne of God” (Revelation 14:1,4,5; see also Revelation 22:4).  Such people indeed secure the universe forever!                    

Love wins, but also loses.  Love remains but some angels and human beings will turn away their faces forever.  Such spurning of God’s love has been God’s risk from the beginning.  Perhaps Jesus revealed the heart of God most clearly when He said shortly before His own people murdered Him: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!  See! Your house is left to you desolate” (Matthew 23:37, 38). 

The risk of granting freedom was not only that God should have a forever heartache.  He would also put Himself on trial. He became One charged with the meanest, most unfair accusations that could be leveled against our Holy Lover.  For millennia, it has seemed that Satan with his accusations has been winning.  More people, it seems, have believed Satan’s lies about God than those who have had faith in His Word, His promises, His trustworthiness. All this trading sad, self-destructive independence for genuine freedom will be covered in lessons to come.

Perhaps below is the neatest summation of God’s over-riding purpose in what He wants to achieve in presenting His side of the Controversy:

“The central theme of the Bible, the theme about which every other in the whole book clusters, is the redemption plan, the restoration in the human soul of the image of God. From the first intimation of hope in the sentence pronounced in Eden to that last glorious promise of the Revelation, ‘They shall see His face; and His name shall be in their foreheads’ (Revelation 22:4), the burden of every book and every passage of the Bible is the unfolding of this wondrous theme,–man’s uplifting,–the power of God, ‘which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.’ 1 Corinthians 15:57. He who grasps this thought has before him an infinite field for study. He has the key that will unlock to him the whole treasure house of God’s word.” Education, 125-126.

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