Retrieving a Cosmic Conflict Worldview: Part 2

By John C. Peckham

by John C. Peckham

*Editor’s Note: See part 1 of this series here.

The motif of cosmic conflict is prominent in Scripture and throughout the Christian tradition, but often neglected today. While from a modernistic, anti-supernaturalist perspective the notion of a cosmic conflict seems implausible, from the vantage point of Christian theism as depicted in Scripture and most of the Christian tradition, the notion is eminently plausible; it is deeply embedded in the very story of the gospel of Christ.

Does a Cosmic Conflict Worldview Make Sense?

Yet, does the notion of a cosmic conflict even make sense? How could there be a conflict between the omnipotent God and mere creatures? No creature could oppose God in terms of sheer power—Scripture explicitly excludes the possibility of cosmic dualism (cf. Col 1:16-17; Rev 12:12). There could only be a cosmic conflict if the conflict is not one of sheer power, but a conflict of another kind. In my recent book, Theodicy of Love, I made a case that Scripture presents this conflict as a primarily epistemic conflict; a conflict over slanderous allegations against God’s character lodged by the devil in the heavenly court, which God’s work of redemption is in part aimed at defeating (for the good of all persons in the universe, who otherwise could not trust and love God unreservedly as the perfect harmony of the universe requires).[1]

The Nature of the Conflict

An epistemic conflict over character cannot be settled by sheer power; only by demonstration of one’s righteousness can allegations against one’s character be defeated. A Governor accused of corruption could not defeat allegations against her by a show of force. Similarly, by their very nature as epistemic claims against God’s character, the devil’s slanderous allegations cannot be settled by the mere exercise of divine power, but require some open demonstration.

And the work of Christ itself provides this demonstration. On one hand, Scripture teaches that the devil is:

            (1) the deceiver of the whole world from the beginning (Rev. 12:9; Matt. 4:3; cf. John 8:44; Acts 5:3; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 John 3:8; Rev. 2:10),

            (2) the slanderer and accuser of God and his people in the heavenly court (Rev 12:10; cf. 13:6; Job 1–2; Zech 3:1–2; Jude 9), and

            (3) the usurping ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; cf. Matt. 12:24-29; Luke 4:5-6; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; 1 John 5:19; Rev 12-13).

On the other hand, in direct contrast, Jesus:

            (1) “came into the world, to testify to the truth” (John 18:37),

            (2) supremely demonstrated God’s perfect righteousness and love via the cross (Rom 3:25-26; 5:8), thereby defeating the devil’s slanderous allegations in the heavenly court (Rev 12:10-11), and

            (3) will finally destroy the kingdom of the devil, who “knows that his time is short” (Rev 12:12; cf. Rom 16:20), and Christ “will reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15).[2]

At every turn, then, Christ’s work undoes the work of the devil. And, according to 1 John 3:8, Jesus “was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (cf. Gen 3:15) and to “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb 2:14).

Rules of Engagement in the Conflict

Yet, for the devil to have “the power of death,” he must have been afforded such power. For there to even be a conflict in the first place—even an epistemic conflict—God must have granted some significant power and jurisdiction to the devil to oppose him. Yet, one might ask, why would God grant Satan any such jurisdiction? If allegations against one’s character cannot be defeated by the exercise of sheer power, it might be that there was no preferable way for God to defeat the enemy’s allegations except to allow an open hearing and demonstration. Such an open hearing, however, would require some parameters in which the devil and his cohorts are allowed to operate in opposition to God, which I refer to as “rules of engagement.”

Such rules of engagement would afford Satan and his cohorts some power and limited authority that they cannot exceed, such that the domain of darkness is both limited and temporary (Rev 12:12; cf. Job 1-2). However, because God always keeps his promises and commitments, such rules of engagement would also (morally) limit the exercise of God’s power to prevent evils that (temporarily) fall within the devil’s jurisdiction. Elsewhere, I have argued that numerous instances in Scripture provide evidence that some such “rules” are operative in the cosmic conflict.[3]

Notably, in this regard, during the wilderness temptation Satan claimed that “all the kingdoms of the world” had “been given over to” him (Luke 4:5-6). And, Jesus himself repeatedly called Satan “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; cf. 2 Cor 4:4), which makes sense if the devil has been afforded some genuine rulership over this world. Further, in numerous instances, the casting out of demons and other miracles appear to be linked to (among other factors) faith (Matt 17:20; Mark 6:5) and prayer (Mark 9:29).

If there are such rules of engagement in the cosmic conflict, it may be that God strongly desires to prevent every evil occurrence (consistent with omnibenevolence) and has the sheer power to do so (consistent with omnipotence), but in some instances doing so would be against the rules of engagement to which God has committed himself (for the good of the universe).

Some Potential Implications of a Cosmic Conflict Worldview

This manifests one way that a cosmic conflict framework might illuminate Christian faith and advance the Christian worldview. Namely, a cosmic conflict perspective might provide a framework that helps in thinking about the problem of evil, particularly relative to the evidential form of that problem (regarding why there is so much evil in the world). Put simply, if we are indeed living in “enemy-occupied territory,” as C. S. Lewis put it, then we might expect our world to look something like a war zone. In the words of Jesus in the parable of the wheat and the tares, “An enemy has done this” (Matt 13:28).

This framework itself raises many other questions that space does not permit me to address here, but if there is a cosmic conflict with rules of engagement to which God has agreed for morally sufficient reasons, God’s action in the world against evil might be temporarily limited (morally) in a way consistent with God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence. Such a cosmic conflict framework might shed light not only on the problem of evil, but also on a number of related problems that stand alongside it, including the problems of (seemingly) selective miracles, petitionary prayer, and (apparent) divine hiddenness. Specifically, if God’s action in the world is (morally) limited according to some rules of engagement in the cosmic conflict, whether or not God makes his presence known or works a miracle in a given situation might be partly tied to such rules, which themselves might be (dynamically) linked to other unseen factors like prayer and faith. And, it might be that the rules of engagement are such that petitionary prayer might (under certain circumstances) increase God’s (moral) jurisdiction to act in ways that, without such prayer, would not have been morally available to God.[4]

There is much, much more to say about all of this and a great many other related issues and questions, but whatever one thinks about the specific lines of thought briefly introduced here, I am convinced that advocates of the Christian worldview should pay close attention to the cosmic conflict that is deeply embedded in the very story of the gospel. If the universe is indeed “at war,” then (as Lewis put it so well) “there is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.”[5] If so, Christians should be well-prepared to “stand against the wiles of the devil” (Eph 6:11).

Notes

[1] See John C. Peckham, Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018), chapters 3-5.

[2] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the NRSV.

[3] See Peckham, Theodicy of Love, chapter 4.

[4] For more on this, see John C. Peckham, “The Influence Aim Problem of Petitionary Prayer: A Cosmic Conflict Approach.” Journal of Analytic Theology (forthcoming).

[5] C. S. Lewis, “Christianity and Culture,” in Christian Reflections, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 33.

— John C. Peckham is Professor of Theology and Christian Philosophy at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Some of his recent books are Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil (Baker Academic, 2018), The Doctrine of God: Introducing the Big Questions (T&T Clark, 2019), and Divine Attributes: Knowing the Covenantal God of Scripture (Baker Academic, forthcoming 2021).  


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