The center makes the difference

The Great Controversy theme, with its ultimate triumph of God, offers us a universal perspective on life.

When Copernicus published in 1543 De Revolutionibus Orbium Caelestium (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres), little did he realize that the world would not be the same again. The scientist showed that the earth was not the stationary center of the universe; rather it, along with other planets, revolved around the sun. The views of this faithful Polish Catholic shook the foundation of centuries-old scientific and religious dogma.

Even before Copernicus, there had been those who postulated that the earth did indeed move around the sun, but astronomy, influenced by Aristotle and Ptolemy, worked on the basic assumption that the earth stood still, and the changes in the positions of the stars and planets in the heavens came solely as a result of their motion, not the earth’s. Influenced by this Greek view, Christian theology soon adopted it as its own.

For an example, witness Dante’s Divine Comedy. The writer places the earth as the center of the universe and hell at the center of the earth. Dante lets his imagination journey into the depths of hell and then ascend up through various spheres of heaven until he finally contemplates God’s throne in the highest sphere. The medieval church basically took this view of the universe and made it part of the Christian dogma.

According to medieval theology, heaven is above, hell is below, and in between is the earth. To move any of these from their respective positions would, many believed, destroy the essence of the Christian worldview, which had the earth at the center of the universe.

Even though Copernicus dedicated his work to “the Most Holy Lord Pope Paul III,” the church by 1616 banned all books, including Copernicus’, that advocated a revolving earth. In 1633 the church forbade any Catholic to believe or teach that the earth moved. Not until 1822 did Rome permit the printing of books that taught that the earth moved around the sun!

The Protestants weren’t much better. Luther called Copernicus “an upstart astrologer,” for after all, Luther said, the Bible clearly taught that “Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, not the earth.” Melanchthon, quoting Ecclesiastes, thundered that the “earth abideth forever” and the “sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose,” and attacked Copernicus. Calvin, quoting Psalm 93:1 (“the world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved”) asked, “Who will place the authority of Copernicus above that of the Holy Spirit?”

Today, no one, Catholic or Protestant, believes that the earth is stationary, or that it is the center of the universe. However, I sometimes think that we tend to do our theology in a way that seems still to keep the earth at the center of the universe, if not physically, yet theologically and spiritually.

Doing theology with the right focus

Seventh-day Adventists have something unique to offer the Christian world: our biblical worldview, our understanding of the great controversy between Christ and Satan. What the Great Controversy theme shows is that the issues regarding sin, rebellion, and God’s law go beyond the earth, humanity, and even our redemption. Instead, the theme includes the entire universe, a perspective that must be kept in mind in order to get a fuller understanding of the great truths held by us as a church.

For instance, 2,000 years ago Christ shouted from the cross, “It is finished!” Jesus beat the devil at Calvary. He paid the price for our redemption. Why, then, are we still here after Jesus won the decisive battle at the cross?

If all that mattered was our salvation, if the only issue involved in this whole wretched experience of sin was getting us freed from sin, then this long expanse of time, almost 2,000 years after the cross, doesn’t really make sense. Why drag this miserable experiment with sin on and on, when Christ accomplished our redemption at the cross?

Listen to Ellen White talking about the death of Jesus: “Satan was not then destroyed. The angels did not even then understand all that was involved in the Great Controversy. The principles at stake were to be more fully revealed. And for the sake of man, Satan’s existence must be continued. Man as well as angels must see the contrast between the Prince of light and the prince of darkness.”1

Can you not see that our salvation, though crucial to the whole Great Controversy theme, isn’t the only factor involved? The question of good and evil, in the context of the universe, must be fully resolved, or as Ellen White said, “fully revealed,” not just to us, but to the angels.

Issues regarding God’s character, the justness of His government, the fairness of His laws, are crucial, universal questions that extend beyond us. Though the battle itself, for the most part now, is being waged here on earth, the repercussions extend through the cosmos. This cosmic perspective is too important to be minimized, and it is that universal sweep that should dominate our mind, rather than a perspective that centers everything on our salvation alone.

Job: a case in point

Look at the book of Job. It begins with an idyllic, serene situation on earth, while there’s a conflict between Christ and Satan in heaven. That’s where the book of Job locates the conflict; not on earth.

Eventually that conflict moves to the earth. The Book of Job, I believe, is a microcosm of the whole Great Controversy scenario, that shows that sin is a universal issue with repercussions far beyond the reaches of our tiny planet.

Think about it. Where did sin begin? On the earth? Of course not. Look beyond the earth, and you will see that sin began in heaven, with the rebellion of Satan and the angels against God’s government. Though being battled out here after the war in heaven and the casting out of Satan and his angels, the problem isn’t limited to the earth.

This cosmic perspective can help us make more understandable truths like Christ’s high priestly ministry in the heavenly sanctuary and the judgment.

The sanctuary is one way in which God helps answer those questions. Just as the earthly sanctuary helps reveal the plan of salvation to us, the heavenly sanctuary helps reveal the plan of salvation to the on looking universe. That’s what the judgment scene of Daniel 7 seems to point to. Countless hosts of heaven watch the judgment take place. That alone should show us that the issues involved in the plan of salvation go way beyond us.

God our center

Copernicus said that the earth is not the center of the universe. He challenged humanity to look above and see the majesty of a cosmic system in which our revolving earth is only a small part. Shifting the paradigm, the challenge of Adventism today is to show to the world that, however important we may be, the great issues of the universe are centered around the great controversy between God and Satan, between good and evil.

Soon, sooner than we think, the words of the prophet will come to pass: “The great controversy is ended. Sin and sinners are no more. The entire universe is clean. One pulse of harmony and gladness beats through the vast creation. From Him whom created all, flow life and light and gladness, through the realms of illimitable space. From the minutest atom to the greatest world, all things, animate and inanimate, in their unshadowed beauty and perfect joy, declare that God is love.”2

The question now is: Shall we look beyond self and make God the center of our thought, life, and hope?

Robert S. Folkenberg is president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, with headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.

Notes and references

  1. Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ. Assn., 1940), p. 761.
  2. White, The Great Controversy (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Publ Assn., 1911), p. 678.