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What is the Warfare Worldview?

The warfare worldview is based on the conviction that our world is engaged in a cosmic war between a myriad of agents, both human and angelic, that have aligned themselves with either God or Satan. We believe this worldview best reflects the response to evil depicted throughout the Bible. For example, Jesus unequivocally opposed evils such as disease, demonization, and even natural disaster (i.e. Jesus rebuked the storm) as originating in the wills of Satan, fallen angels, and sinful people, rather than of God.

This view is not ontologically dualistic, because while the Bible clearly articulates war between good and evil, it also clearly articulates God’s sovereignty. The battle that is currently raging is not everlasting, and when it ends, we are assured of God’s victory. In fact, the victory has already been won in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ (Col. 2:13–14), but the demise of evil has not yet been fully realized. Christians are called to wage spiritual warfare (Eph. 6:10–17) against evil through prayer, evangelism, and social action.

While most of the apostolic fathers held views that were similar to the warfare worldview, the view which has been prevalent in western church tradition since the 4th century teaches that everything that ever happens, whether good or evil, does so according to God’s will. Thus, the western church has wrestled with the “Problem of Evil” throughout most of its history—and rightly so. The warfare worldview, however, makes sense out of evil, human freedom, the power and urgency of prayer, evangelism, and social action.

Instead of resigning ourselves to our circumstances when we encounter evil, the warfare worldview encourages Christians to revolt against evil as evidence of Satan’s activity, rather than God’s mysterious will. Satan, fallen angels, and sinful people have wills of their own, and they are responsible for everything that happens which is not consistent with the character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.

Questioning the Blueprint Worldview
The Bible uniformly teaches that God is the Creator of everything and the sovereign Lord of history (e.g. Gen. 1:1; John 1:3; Col. 1:16–17; Deut. 10:14; Dan. 10:34–35; Ps. 135:6ff; Acts 17:24–27; Eph. 1:11). At times he exercises unilateral control over what transpires in history, miraculously intervening to alter the course of nations or of individuals, and even predestining some events long before they come to pass (e.g. Isa. 46:10–11; Acts 2:23, 4:28). Because he is omnipotent, his goal of acquiring a “bride” (the Church) and establishing an eternal kingdom free from all evil will certainly be achieved (e.g. 1 Cor. 15:25–28; Eph. 1:16–23; Col. 1:18–20; Rev. 20:10). Scripture’s majestic portrayal of God is that of a sovereign, omnipotent Creator who is confidently guiding the world toward his desired end.

Many Christians have concluded that in order for God to accomplish his goal for creation, everything that happens in world history must somehow fit into his sovereign plan. This assumption has permeated the Church throughout most of its history. The assumption is often expressed in cliches Christians are sometimes prone to recite when confronting tragedies like cancer, crippling accidents, or natural disasters. Believers sometimes attempt to console themselves and others with statements like, “God has his reasons,” “There’s a purpose for everything,” “Providence writes straight with crooked lines,” and “His ways are not our ways.” (1)

I call this understanding of God’s relationship to the world “the blueprint worldview,” for it assumes that everything somehow fits into meticulous plan and mysterious purposes of God—a divine blueprint. The view takes many different forms, but each version shares the assumption that, whether ordained or allowed, there is a specific divine reason for every occurrence in history. As traditional and popular as the blueprint worldview is, it is not without significant difficulties. For one thing, this view makes it exceedingly difficult to reconcile the evil in our world with the perfect goodness of God, especially when applied to specific instances of suffering and evil.

For example, dozens of small children were recently buried alive by a mudslide in Mexico. Can we conceive of a specific reason as to why God might have deemed it better to allow this tragedy than to prevent it? To cite another example, several years ago a young girl was abducted from her own yard in a rural town in Minnesota. Her parents now live in a perpetual nightmare wondering every day if their daughter is alive and, if she is, wondering what is being done to her. Can we theorize a possible “good” providential reason why God might have thought it better to allow this nightmare rather than prevent it? Is it possible to encourage these parents to accept this nightmare as coming from their loving Father’s hand?

For many of us, the suggestion that God has a “higher reason” for allowing children to suffocate in mud or be kidnapped is insulting to those who experience the horror as well as to the character of God. (2) Indeed, some have abandoned belief in God altogether rather than believing that God’s “higher harmony” is somehow served by horrifying suffering. Like Ivan in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, these people abandon belief in God on moral grounds. “I renounce the higher harmony altogether,” Ivan announces. “It’s not worth the tears of…one tortured child…” (3) Any design that permits innocent children to suffer for a “greater purpose” is intrinsically immoral, he argues, and we are obliged to renounce it.

Introducing the Warfare Worldview
I believe Ivan’s rage is justified, but his rejection of God unnecessary. For, despite the above mentioned motif which stresses God’s sovereignty, Scripture does not support the view that there must be a divine reason behind all events. This brings us to a second and even more fundamental problem with the blueprint worldview: It is, I contend, rooted in an imbalanced reading of the Bible.

While Scripture emphasizes God’s ultimate authority over the world, it also emphasizes that agents, whom God has created, can and do resist his will. Humans and fallen angels are able to grieve his Spirit and to some extent frustrate his purposes (e.g. Gen. 6:6; Isa. 63:10; Luke 7:30; Acts 7:51; Eph. 4:30; Heb. 3:8, 15; 4:7). Scripture refers to this myriad of other angels and humans who refuse to submit to God’s rule as a rebel kingdom (Matt. 12:26; Col. 1:13; Rev. 11:15), and identifies the head of this rebellion as a powerful fallen angel named Satan. It is clear that God shall someday vanquish this rebel kingdom, but it is equally clear that in the meantime, he genuinely wars against it.

This prominent biblical motif expresses what I call the “warfare worldview.” The world is caught up in a spiritual war between God and Satan. Unlike the blueprint worldview, the warfare worldview does not assume that there is a specific divine reason for what Satan and other evil agents do. To the contrary, God fights these opponents precisely because their purposes are working against his purposes.

Suffering takes on a different meaning when it is considered in the context of a cosmic war as opposed to a context in which everything is part of God’s meticulous plan and mysterious higher good. In the warfare worldview we would not wonder about what specific divine reason God might have had in allowing little children to be buried alive in mud or a little girl to be kidnapped. Instead, we would view these individuals as “victims of war” and assign the blame to human or demonic beings who oppose God’s will. Following Scripture, we would of course look to God for comfort in the midst of our suffering, trust that he is working to bring good out of the evil, and find consolation in our confidence that the war will someday come to a glorious end. But we would not look to God’s purposes for the explanation of why any particular evil occurred in the first place. In the warfare worldview, this is understood to be the result of the evil intentions and activity of human and angelic agents.

As is the case with the blueprint worldview, the warfare worldview is not without difficulties. Foremost among these is the question of how this view can be reconciled with the biblical teaching that God is the all-powerful Creator of the world. Since the warfare worldview denies that God always has a specific reason for allowing evil deeds to occur, must it not deny that God is able to prevent events he wishes would not take place? We may state the dilemma this way: It seems we must either believe that God does not prevent certain events because he chooses not to or because he is unable to. The warfare worldview denies that God always chooses not to intervene, for this would require the belief that there is a specific divine purpose behind everything. Hence the warfare worldview must accept that, at least sometimes, God is unable to prevent evil. But how then can we continue to affirm that God is all-powerful?

My conviction is that, unlike the questions that the blueprint worldview raises, this question has a plausible answer. The trinitarian warfare theodicy argues that the answer lies in the nature of love. As Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, God’s essence is love (1 John 4:8, 16). God created the world for the purpose of displaying his triune love and inviting others to share in it (cf. John 17:20–25). I argue that it was not logically possible for God to have this objective without risking the possibility of war breaking out in his creation. The possibility of love among contingent creatures such as angels and humans entails the possibility of war. Six theses follow from the nature and risk of love. These theses, if accepted, render intelligible the warfare worldview of Scripture as well as the problem of evil.

End Notes

(1) This assumption extends to our broader culture as well, as evidenced, for example, by the fact that insurance policies customarily refer to natural disasters as “acts of God.”

(2) See e.g. K. Surin, Theology and the Problem of Evil (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986); T. W. Tilley, The Evils of Theodicy (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1990); and M. Scott, “The Morality of Theodicies,” Religious Studies 32, no. 1 (1996), 1–13.

(3) See W. Kaufman, ed., Religion from Tolstoy to Camus (New York and Evanston: Harper and Row, 1961), 137–44.

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