In his classic and enduringly popular Mere Christianity, scholar, adult convert and apologist C S Lewis admitted his surprise at the sense of what he described as a “civil war” that he glimpsed in the pages of the Bible: “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe—a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. . . . Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.”
This narrative inspired much of Lewis’s fictional writing as well as that of peers such as J R Tolkien (author of The Lord of the Rings) and so many similar good-versus-evil stories in our historical and contemporary culture. But more importantly, it’s an understanding of human history with broad implications for how we understand God, creation and salvation—and our place in these.
The impetus for consideration of cosmic conflict begins with the self-revelation and sacrifice of God in the history of Jesus. As theologian David Bentley Hart argues in his book The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami?, “That ours is a fallen world is not, of course, a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe: it is not a first principle of faith, but rather something revealed to us only by what we know of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time.”
That God would intervene so dramatically and enter so fully into the suffering and injustice of human history by sending Jesus, His only Son, to die for our sins, raises profound questions. These include why this was necessary, what human beings were saved from and for, how this intervention and sacrifice “works,” and what the larger story is into which God’s acts in Jesus might fit, including questions of the origin of evil and its eventual end or resolution. Such intervention must also have implications for how God’s people are called to live and how we respond to suffering, injustice, oppression and all forms of evil in our world.
In the worldview of cosmic conflict, the first faithful response to questions about how God could allow all the suffering in the world is that this is not how the world was created or intended to be—that “an enemy did this,” as Jesus explained (Matthew 13:28). God is not to blame for human suffering and tragedy; there are other agents, wills and choices at work. God’s response to this is, first of all, found in the saving and reconciling acts of Jesus, who offers present healing and hope as well as future rescue and restoration.
But God’s response, as seen in Revelation and elsewhere, is also located in those human beings who choose His side in this conflict. Human beings are given the opportunity to choose their allegiance and response. God’s further response to the questions of His character and goodness is in the practical lives of His people, particularly as seen in their acts of justice and mercy. Writing in his book Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, biblical scholar J Louis Martyn says that “in this war the church is God’s cosmic vanguard, the soldiers who receive their behavioural bearings in the midst of and from the contours of this war.” The implications of this understanding of cosmic conflict—the “contours of this war”—are important for a greater appreciation for doing justice.
Sin and death, as the obvious expressions of evil and active ingredients of injustice and oppression in our world, are real powers that have their own presence and weight. Various commentators point back to Jesus’ confrontation with evil spirits in the Gospel accounts as embodying the clash of these powers. The reality of the demonic in the New Testament gives evil a superhuman dimension in which human beings are subject to external factors and not the sole and independent agents in the drama of history.
This is an insight that recurs throughout the New Testament. As an obvious example, Ephesians 6:12 uses warlike language but directs readers away from obvious physical protagonists: “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (NLT).*
Sin and death remain realities, but only defeated realities.
The worldview of cosmic conflict as expressed in texts such as Ephesians 6:12 or Revelation 12 implicates fallen and broken political, economic and social structures as powers that can work evil in their own right or be used by evil powers for such ends. As Christopher Morse, author of Not Every Spirit: A Dogmatics of Christian Disbelief, said, “Systemic evils are institutionalised structures of dehumanisation. They are ‘the course of this world’ insofar as its inhabitants are ensnared into a crowd mentality of complicity with the infliction of destructions and death (Ephesians 2:2).” Because of the corporate nature of such entities, these powers usually have the greatest impact on those who are already politically, economically or socially disadvantaged and thus least able to defend themselves.
But in Jesus and His saving death and resurrection, sin and death, Satan and evil, are defeated, and overwhelming as these might sometimes seem, they are only ever temporarily powerful.
Hart said that “at the heart of the gospel . . . is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the will of God cannot ultimately be defeated and that the victory over evil and death has already been won.” The narrative of Revelation promises the final defeat and destruction of those people and powers that oppress, exploit and deal unjustly (Revelation 18), until God and God’s judgements are universally proclaimed as “true and just” (Revelation 19:2).
Sin and death remain realities, but only defeated realities. Not only are we to grow spiritually in the victory of Christ, we are also called and empowered to act practically in the light of this cosmic victory. This is the work of doing justice as we live in this cosmic conflict. Hart describes the “regal, relentless and miraculous enmity” toward sin, suffering, evil and death in Jesus’ work of forgiveness, healing and casting out. It isn’t that the faithful work of seeking justice isn’t daunting, difficult and often-defeated, but that such work is in harmony with the kingdom, plan and purpose of God.
As theologian John Howard Yoder argues, also using the symbolism of Revelation, “The kind of faithfulness that is willing to accept evident defeat rather than complicity with evil is, by virtue of its conformity with what happens to God when he works among us, aligned with the ultimate triumph of the Lamb.”
According to philosophy and religion lecturer Darrin W Snyder Belousek, living amid the cosmic conflict, the call to faithfulness is a call to be agents of reversal, working against the powers of sin and death in the power and pattern of Christ. He writes, “The apostolic story of the cross is thus a story of divine reversal and redemption of human evil—a story of God bringing righteousness from sin, vindication from injustice, life from death.”