Friday, March 30, 2012

Whose World Is It Anyway?

God, man or Satan: Who is in charge?

If you have been around evangelical churches for some time, you probably have heard it taught many times that God created Adam and Eve, gave them authority over the earth, but Adam and Eve surrendered/passed on this authority to Satan when they sinned. From there, the teachings vary, depending on what branch of the church you are listening to. Some say that Jesus reclaimed this authority from Satan by dying on the cross, some go a step further and say that Jesus has given the reclaimed authority to the church. One outgrowth of this teaching holds that God cannot do anything unless someone prays for it while man and/or Satan can do anything they like at this time of redemptive history. The differing teachings and opinions on this are the cause of great confusion for many believers. This confusion is mostly suppressed because nobody wants to admit that he/she does not really have a satisfactory answer for a fundamental question like this. However, the confusion tends to surface every time some great calamity strikes, be it in the form of natural disasters, acts of terrorism or even during a democratic election. I think, therefore, that it will be helpful to look at scripture and see what it teaches about the different phases of redemptive history, which can be divided into three phases (some call it "dispensations"):
  1. From creation until the fall
  2. After the fall until the cross
  3. After the cross.
Obviously, the main verses that talk about phases 1 and 2 will be found in the Old Testament, while phase 3 will be addressed mainly in the New Testament. As we are living in phase 3, this is the phase that is of most interest to us. There is, at least, one more phase of redemptive history that could be addressed, namely the phase that is still lying ahead of us in the future (rapture, the second coming of Christ, the millennial reign of Christ, the New Jerusalem, etc.). However, for simplicity's sake, this phase shall not be addressed by this teaching.

Phase 1: From creation until the fall

God's sovereign role in creation itself is unchallenged by any serious Bible scholar. Even though God said "Let us make man in our image" (Gen 1:26), it is clear that God was completely in charge of creation, no matter whether "us" refers only to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, or whether it includes angels - fallen or faithful. God did not delegate any part of the creation process to anybody else, because he alone has the ability to create something out of nothing, solely by his word. If God had delegated any part of the creation process to an angel, man or Satan himself, nothing would have happened, because neither angels nor man have the ability to create anything out of nothing. Angels and man are only able to take what God created and alter it. An example would be the planting of trees: Man can take a seed and plant it, but man cannot produce a seed itself. Man can procreate (Satan and angels cannot!), but again, only if he takes what God has created, namely the male seed and the female egg. Thus, it is established that the process of the original creation was completely under God's control. Nothing was created against God's will, and everything that God created was good. Very good, actually. But what happened after the initial process of creation was finished? Did God step down and put man in charge? In Genesis 1:28-30, God indeed assigned Adam and Eve an awesome responsibility: They were to be fruitful, increase in number and subdue the earth. To "subdue" means to control, to tame, and to steward. God further assigned Adam and Eve to rule over every living thing, and also told them what they were supposed to eat. We all know what happened then, even though we don't know whether Adam and Eve ate from the forbidden tree on the first day, or whether it happened after they had been in the Garden of Eden for many years. But that is insignificant to our question here, which is to find out who was in charge in the time between creation and the fall. Many Christians believe that man (and woman) were in charge, but that does not stand the witness of scripture. To find the answer, we have to read Genesis chapter 3 and see what happened immediately after Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit. God stepped in and announced the consequences of their actions to Adam and Eve as well as to Satan. All three of them had to accept their respective punishments. God was absolutely in charge at this time, with no limits to his authority. We could compare Adam's and Eve's role before the fall with the responsibility of a CEO of a company. The CEO is assigned a position of great responsibility and authority by the legal board of the company, but ultimately the people on the legal board remain in charge and can fire the CEO anytime they want to.


Therefore, the answer to the question who was in charge in the time between creation and the fall is: God was.

Phase 2: From the fall until the cross

As we continue reading Genesis 3, we learn that man's sin had consequences, and what could have been a walk in the park for humankind became a painful fate. From that time on, women had to go through great pain during childbirth. Men also had to accept great pain, especially as far as hard, laborious work was concerned. Satan also received harsh discipline, and it was announced to him that the seed of the woman (referring to Jesus Christ) would eventually completely defeat him. God assigned responsibilities and punished man, woman and Satan, but nowhere does it say that God gave away his sovereignty over everything or anything. Not to humankind and not to Satan. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament, the total sovereignty of God is stated over and over again. Examples are:
  • The election of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Saul, David as individuals as well as the election of Israel as a people
  • God's dealings with kings of other nations, probably exemplified the best by the lives of Pharaoh of Egypt and Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon
  • Job's story makes it very clear that Satan had to get permission from God to harm Job's family, his belongings and eventually Job's physical body.
Many verses explicitly state that God was able to and actually did do anything that he wanted to do; God never had to ask permission from either man nor Satan in order for him to do what he wanted to do; examples are Psalm 115:3 ("Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him"), Psalm 135:6 ("The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths") and Proverbs 21:1 ("The king's heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases").

The two reports of the temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4 and in Luke 4 give us important insights on the concerned topic. Here Satan says that all (!) the kingdoms of this world had been given to him and that he could give their authority to anybody he wanted. Some argue that Satan was bluffing, that he lied, but that doesn't make sense because then it would not have been a temptation for Jesus, as he knew the truth. When Satan says that all the kingdoms of this world were "given" to him, it obviously means that they were given to him by God, not by man. Now we seem to have a dilemma: Who appoints/chooses leaders over the kingdoms of this world, God or Satan? The easiest solution to this dilemma is that God indeed delegated this responsibility to Satan, but that God could frustrate and override Satan's intentions by ultimately still directing the hearts of the rulers. However, while it seems that Satan could place people in a position of authority in Egypt, Greece, Rome and any other secular kingdom until the present, he had no business in deciding who ruled God's chosen people, Israel. Israel in the Old Testament was not a kingdom of this world, but it was the Kingdom of God, God's domain. Thus, it is not surprising that Satan always fought against Israel, because it represented the only kingdom that was not part of his domain, his jurisdiction, so to speak.

Pontius Pilate is another tricky case to decide: who placed him in the position of authority over Judea: God, Satan or Cesar? In the gospel accounts of Jesus' dialogue with Pontius Pilate, Jesus makes it clear that Pilate would not have had authority over Jesus (and over everybody else in the entire area of his jurisdiction, for that matter) unless it had been given to him "from above" (John 19:11). Looking at the authority structure of the Roman Empire, Pontius Pilate was appointed as governor of Judea by Cesar, but Jesus was more likely (and in my opinion certainly) referring to a much higher authority: God the Father himself!


We can, therefore, summarize and say with confidence that, while Satan and man had been assigned various responsibilities and "rights" from the time of the fall until Jesus' death on the cross, the ultimate party in charge at this phase of redemptive history was neither man nor Satan, but God himself.

3rd Phase: After the cross

Well, if God sovereignly ruled in both the phase from creation to the fall as well as in the phase from the fall until the cross, how much more does he reign now, after the cross! In the 28th chapter of the book of Matthew, Jesus says clearly: "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me." Well, we might wonder who gave all this authority to Jesus: Did he receive it from God the Father, from man, or from Satan? Logically, only the person or party that had the authority before the cross would be able to give it to Jesus after the cross. 1. Corinthians 15:27 sheds light on this: "Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ." This, of course, also supports the argument that God the Father was in charge in the period from the fall until the cross, which we discussed above in the second phase. Romans 13, the ultimate authority chapter, teaches clearly that all authority has been established by God, and in the first two chapters of Colossians, another famous authority passage, it is also made clear that Jesus currently is absolutely in charge, e.g. when it says that Jesus "is the head over every power and authority" (Colossians 2:10).

I have found that this seems to be an inconvenient truth for many Christians because it doesn't fit into their simplistic "God-loves-you-and-has-a-wonderful-plan-for-your-life" theology. It seems to be easier and making God appear more "loving" to say that e.g. earthquakes, tsunamis, and other disasters are not God's will and that He has no part in anything that causes pain or grieve. After all, doesn't scripture also teach that "the whole world is under the control of the evil one" (1 John 5:19)? To be perfectly honest, I have to admit that I don't really "like" this verse because it doesn't seem to fit into my line of argument. However, as always when there is a tension between different verses or passages of scripture, it is important to not base our entire thinking and our entire lives on only one verse in scripture that suits us, but that we look at the entirety of scripture. Some of the tensions might never be resolved on this side of heaven, but that is not an excuse to not struggle with God and ask him to give us insight and understanding. Regarding the mentioned verse in 1 John 5:19 I would say that, yes - the "evil one" (i.e. Satan) indeed controls the world, but only in the parameters set by God. It is only in these parameters that the Bible speaks of Satan as "the god of this world" (2. Corinthians 4:4). God can still do, and does still do whatever he wants to do!


While Satan and man have been assigned responsibilities from the time of the cross until the present, the ultimate party in charge at this, the current phase of redemptive history is neither man nor Satan, but Jesus Christ, who received all authority from God the Father himself.

So, whose world is it anyway? 

"The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it!
Psalms 24:1