Life can be wearisome and dreary because the world is indifferent to us. ― Kilroy J. Oldster
In 2003, the best-selling rap-rock band Linkin Park released a song that would become the anthem of many. It was titled “In the End” and began with rapper Mike Shinoda laying a pessimistic foundation as he raps about the futility of trying as “wasting it all” only to have everything “[fall] apart” anyhow. At that point in the song, lead singer Chester Bennington emerges with a poem dripping in darkness and cynicism. “I tried so hard, and got so far” he sings. “But in the end, it doesn’t even matter. I had to fall, to lose it all. But in the end, it doesn’t even matter.”
The song is meant to be a poem depicting the sufferings of Chester’s upbringing, but as is often the case with poetry—it never fully lets off its own meaning. Instead, the listener is free to interpret and construct her own meaning. And if memory serves me well, not only did my peers and I play the song on repeat, we also drank deeply of its excessive nihilism. Somehow, Chester’s bellowing cries for meaning—cries which sadly ended in 2017 following his tragic suicide–comforted us and reminded us that in some dark sense, there was beauty in that meaninglessness.
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This perspective is an important one for Adventists to grasp. For many of us, life and destiny are seen through the lens of “the blessed hope.” We have an enthusiastic approach to reality—one which Adventist turned atheist Ryan Bell now describes as “hopelessly naive”. Therefore, despite that bright vision of the future, we must learn to contend with the dark mirage of the culture, and to appreciate it. When we do, we will discover not only the prose contained within its borders but be able to better present our redemptive narrative in a way that avoids the shallow naivety we often portray to the world.
As an Adventist, I can think of no better doctrinal lens through which to contend with the absurdity and beauty of life than the Great Controversy. This theological motif is by far the most compelling and confronting approach to man’s cosmic significance that I have ever encountered. In all my conversations and dialogues with secular minds—the Great Controversy stands out as one of the most exciting propositions to explore. When properly contextualized to the secular man’s language of being, the results can be overwhelmingly beautiful.
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Before I dive in and explore the meaning of the Great Controversy in light of the absurdity of life, I want to take a moment to point out the misuses of this motif. As is true of all doctrinal frameworks, constraining its narrative to religio-centric concerns is a sure way of neutering its capacity to interact meaningfully with the secular world.
Sadly, in many conversations I have had with Adventists, the Great Controversy has been stilted in just such a way. Consequently, it emerges as a theological lens that we use to “explain away” tragedy, injustice, and suffering rather than a lens through which we can more effectively confront and contend with those issues. The amount of times I have heard Adventists shrug off the latest social catastrophe with the classic “we know why this is happening brother—it’s the Great Controversy” mantra is enough to make me realize that maybe—just maybe—we are missing the point altogether.
In the same vein, many of us have used the Great Controversy motif as a way to embolden a narcissistic sense of self-importance—a kind of foundational source for a life of conspiracy-consciousness which we assume to be self-evident because hey—“there’s a Great Controversy going on”—right? Finally, it has served as the fuel to a cynical faith rivaled only by postmodernism’s dystopianism. In fact, I have often wondered if conservative Adventism’s obsession with dreary apocalypticism has, in some way, been nurtured by the crumbs left behind by postmodernism’s sardonic orientation.
Likewise, it is imperative to understand that the Great Controversy is not a divine public relations campaign in which God uses philosophical marketing to tell humanity, “I know life can be hideously dark, but trust me—I didn’t do it! The devil did.” No, the Great Controversy is not a cookie-cutter formula that is meant to assuage every existential angst that we possess and it’s certainly not meant to be used to tell a grieving mother why her baby girl was born without life.
In this sense, the Great Controversy cannot answer every question or make sense of every incoherence of being. But what it can do is help us navigate the pain toward what philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to as “the free[dom] to become myself.” In that sense, the Great Controversy is more like a companion that unveils the goodness of God while dancing with the tenebrosity of existence. Through it, we can music out of the wildly complex variables of the war between good and evil.
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In this sense, I have found that the Great Controversy—properly approached—has an incredible amount of meaning to offer our contemporary and fragmented culture. To the questions of social injustice, to the pursuit of an equitable and fair society, and to the dream of a world in which the collective web of humanity can sit and eat at the same table without exclusion, the Great Controversy has something meaningful to say. Thus, in my discussions with secular seekers, I always approach the Great Controversy in three simple, consecutive layers. The first I refer to as the origin of the impulse of self, the second: the perpetuation of the pattern of self, and the third: the reversal of the way of self. In this present article, I will cover the first and conclude with the others in the next installment.
The Origin of the Impulse of Self
Where does evil come from? This is one of the questions that the Great Controversy sets out to contend with. It does not resolve it for the question of evil is not one which contains a philosophical resolution. I am, in this sphere, compelled to agree with Adventist pioneer Ellen G. White who stated that if a “cause be shown for its existence, it would cease to be sin.” Thus, from the onset it is important for us to not claim more for the Great Controversy motif than it inherently offers. It is not an “answer” in the proverbial sense of the term. Rather, it is a narrative pathway through which we can wrestle and confront life with metaphysical confidence despite the mysteries that remain.
As the Great Controversy unfolds, we are confronted with the question—who is God? Previous articles have explored the ontology of God by quoting from the apostle John— “God is love” (1 John 4:7). We have also seen that God’s creation emerges out of the overflow of his love and is, therefore, designed to reflect that love. Thus, creation itself was sown together in strings of love and was meant to remain that way, affording humanity an eternal existence of limitless development—always rising, always learning, ever-growing.
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But of course, life as we know it does not reflect this original intent. Instead, a collapse took place. The very fabric of reality was rent. We are now constrained by limitations only our dreams can transcend—a reality screenwriter Stephen Karam described as the “existential horrors of life” which “drive our imaginations and theater…” In the secular sphere, this reality is navigated quite well via amusement, duties, and transcendence. These three approaches fuel modern society. Or better said, they are the engine of modern society which is fueled by our angst. For you take the wandering human heart and offer it amusement as an escape, offer it responsibilities as a way of manufacturing meaning, and offer it transcendent ideologies as a way to placate its insatiable desire for the beyond and you have the makings of corporations driven by the demand for meaning and met by the endless supply of more movies, more careers, and more self-help gurus.
But man is still empty. For, given the right chain of events, any of these navigation systems can collapse. In a split second, it can all change. All of our meaning, all of our pleasure, all of our purpose and positive thinking—all of it can crash instantly and we are left naked once more to confront the reality of a devouring existence which appears to want nothing more than to silence our voice and return us to the nothingness from which we came. And it is this reality that author Kilroy J. Oldster described as “wearisome”, “dreary”, and “indifferent”.
But the Great Controversy offers an alternative perspective. Building off of the ontology of God’s love and creation’s purpose as emerging from that love it now seeks to make sense of the very real presence of suffering. Another being enters the narrative—a conscious power at war with God. Sometimes a dragon, sometimes a serpent, sometimes a man, sometimes an angel, most times a satan (accuser). This accuser, the ha satan of the narrative, is identified as the culprit and originator of all that is broken in our world.
However, I have found that such a proposition leads to a very intuitive question: If God is good and the universe is good, then what led Lucifer to even conceive of bad? What was his reference point? And alongside this question an even more intuitive one that goes something like this: What’s the point of freedom of choice if Satan could only choose God? It’s not like there was a good God and a bad one to choose from. Reality was good and was grounded in one God. So then, how was Lucifer meant to choose if there was only one option?
I bring these two questions up because answering the latter is imperative if we are to make sense of the former. Lucifer’s choice was clearly not between a good God and a sin god. There was only God. Reality was only good. Therefore, this angelic being was not confronted with two equally opposing forces but rather, with something much more sinister and complex. Lucifer was confronted with the choice between God and not-God. Between allowing God to occupy the space that was inherently his, or removing God from that space. He had a choice between God as present, and God as absence.
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This then, helps us navigate the former question with more ease. Lucifer did not set out to be evil. He clearly did not have a reference point for evil because there was nothing evil in reality. Therefore, Lucifer most likely did not engage in rebellion with the aim of bringing evil into the universe. Rather, his rebellion may have been more along the lines of pursuing good—perhaps even an imagined “higher” good—only this good could not be tapped into if God was in the way.
Thus, he chose not-God and invited others to pursue a higher ethic and government ruled by angelic intelligence and disconnected from the creator. However, what Lucifer may or may not have known at the time is that as a being whose existence was derivative (explored in the previous article) he would, by design, have to derive his existence from somewhere. And to the student of scripture, it appears that Lucifer has dedicated his being to deriving his existence from himself and from the very absence that God’s abdication left behind.
So where does evil come from? It’s a complex mystery I’m not convinced we can ever resolve for the very act of resolving it would contradict its very nature. Evil, you see, is not a positive quality but a negative one. In other words, sin is not something that has a source. To suggest that Lucifer is the source of evil is to say more than Scripture says. He is described as the “father of lies, tempter, devil, ruler of demons, devourer, prowler, Beelzebub, spirit of disobedience, prince of the power of the air, god of this world, blinder, the evil one, thief, killer, destroyer, dragon, ancient serpent, deceiver” and more. However, scripture also makes it clear that this being is not the source of evil for from the beginning he was the “model of perfection, full of wisdom, and perfect in beauty… blameless in everything he did from the day he was created” (Ezekiel 28:12-19). Thus, Satan is not, in himself, the source of evil but rather its original embodiment. So then, what is evil and where does it come from?
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Once again, this is a question too profound for human minds. However, I have found one illustration helpful in journeying with my secular friends. Darkness is a common thing we are all familiar with, but much like sin, darkness does not have a source. If you turn off the lights in your room, there is no globe that emits rays of darkness that you have to turn on in order for the room to go dark. Rather, the darkness is there by virtue of the absence of light. It does not have a source. It is, in essence, a quality of absence not presence.
This is a pale example of how sin appears to originate. It is not a present entity coexisting with God and reality, but a mere absence. When an intelligent being chooses not-God, he removes realities ontological source of good (love) and thus, creates within himself a vacuum that he then attempts to fill with lesser things. And as these lesser things occupy the heart, the being becomes a lesser version of itself and thus, erodes and implodes into a vacuous mire of self-interest and self-obsession. Thus, Ezekiel could say that Lucifer “corrupted his wisdom” —that is, he eroded into a lesser version of himself by virtue of exalting “his splendor” (himself).
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All this gives birth to the underlying principle of Lucifer’s government: the impulse of self. This impulse now emerges as the animating force within his being. It leads him to rebel, deceive, and devour all because rather than being driven by the heavenly ethic of love, the fallen angel is now acting out the fundamental principle of the absence of love: self-centeredness. And this fundamental principle disrupts the harmony of heaven, leads to war and division, and ultimately the degradation of the human race which, by joining Lucifer in his rebellion, place themselves under the governing power of love’s absence. The impulse of self now governs the human psyche, the interpersonal and social dimensions of human existence are likewise corrupted by its influence, and the end result is suffering. But what exactly does this look like and how does it help us make sense of our suffering? The answer is in the next perspective which I introduced as the perpetuation of the pattern of self. We will turn to this in the next article.
 Ellen G. White, The Great Controversy, p. 492.
 Stephen Karam, “A Playwright Hits the Big Time: Stephen Karam on His White-Hot Career.”