Grappling With the Metanarrative

In his classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis shares intriguing insight into something the thoughtful observer will pick up from the Bible. “One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously,” he writes, “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. The difference [between Dualism] is that 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.”

Lewis continues, “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage” (Mere Christianity, pp. 45, 46).

What Lewis is describing might best be labeled the “metanarrative” of Scripture. The word “metanarrative” is a compound word (from meta– “beyond” and narrative– “story”) that many simply label the “Big Story” or “Big Picture.” It is the cohesive and linking theme that ties together many smaller stories. And as I study Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, I cannot help but agree with Lewis that this “good vs. evil” theme is the overarching metanarrative—that the universe is, indeed, “at war.”

Of course, neither Lewis nor I are the first ones—nor the last—to come up with this idea. There are many within Christianity—and other religions, for that matter—who see this struggle between good and evil as prevalent within the universe, though the view seems to be losing momentum within many Christian circles these days. But I think, if I may humbly submit, that the Seventh-day Adventist perspective on the matter—and the importance we place upon it—is the most compelling rendition of it. For Adventists, this good vs. evil metanarrative (what we often refer to as “the great controversy”) is, to a large extant, the glue that holds our theology together. It is the philosophical fabric that underlies our understanding of God’s character and nature, and pulls back the curtain on what is going on, not only in this world, but the universe as a whole.

There are many different biblical passages I could start with and point to that give insight into this “great controversy,” but let me just share a few that I have found to be rather compelling. The first is what Paul writes in Romans 3:3, 4. “For what if some [Jews] did not believe? Will their unbelief make the faith of God without effect? Certainly not! Indeed, let God be true but every man a liar. As it is written: That You may be justified in Your words, and may overcome when You are judged.”

There are a few modern versions that don’t quite get the translation of verse 4 correct, but when Paul is allowed to say what he really says, it is rather startling to consider. According to Paul, who is quoting David in Psalm 51, God is actually needing to be “justified” in His words and He needs to “overcome” when He is judged. Thus, there is a sense in which God, Himself, is being judged and is in need of justification—of being “declared righteous,” as the word “justify” connotes.

The curtain is pulled back a little more on this “Big Picture” when one considers John the Revelator’s account in Revelation 12. “And war broke out in heaven,” John describes, “Michael and his angels fought with the dragon; and the dragon and his angels fought, but they did not prevail, nor was a place found for them in heaven any longer. So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who decieves the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:7-9).

Besides the fact that it is very surprising to read that war broke out in a perfect place like heaven, what strikes me as most interesting is that John says that Satan “deceives the whole world.” This idea of “deception” as it relates to Satan—that “Dark Power” of Lewis’s Mere Christianity—is a theme that pops up over and over again. In fact, the same author, John, when he quotes Jesus in his gospel, touches upon the same idea: “He [Satan] was a murderer from the beginning,” Jesus says, “and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it” (John 8:44). Thus, when Revelation says that “war” broke out in heaven, the weapon of choice that Satan used—and continues to use—is deception. It has been his constant modus operandi.

We see this, of course, at the very beginning of this earth’s existence, when he deceived Adam and Eve about the forbidden fruit. But it wasn’t simply about the fruit. In fact, it was hardly about the fruit. The lies he shared with them were really about the Maker of all fruit. When he cunningly raised the question, “Has God really said,” and then stealthly suggested, “For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5), he was very subtly raising questions in Adam and Eve’s mind about God’s character, goodness, about the fact that His very nature is, indeed, “love” (see 1 John 4:8).

It makes sense, then, that Paul would say that God is being “judged.” From the moment he fell, Satan has been sowing seeds of doubt about God’s character. And he has succeeded, to a large degree, in deceiving a great number of the universe’s inhabitants.

This is why Jesus was so intent upon setting the record straight about God’s character. It is why He repeatedly pointed to His own behavior, saying, “I am . . . the truth” and “He who has seen Me, has seen the Father” (John 14:6, 9). Being God, Himself, Jesus sought to pull the curtain back more and set the record straight as to the character of God. He wanted to, among other things, give a revelation of who God is—which found its zenith at the cross, when Christ confirmed God’s character of self-sacrificial, self-giving, self-emptying love.

Of course, the Bible indicates that this didn’t bring the “great controversy” to its ultimate conclusion. The war still continues. What God is now trying to accomplish is the reproducing of His character in others’ lives as a testimony to the fact that His ways and character are actually worth following. We see this in the life of Job—a single man who testified powerfully to the fact that, even when all the “goodies” were removed from his life, God was still worth following. And we see it in the words of Paul, when he describes how, at the end of time, the curtain will ultimately be pulled back in its entirety and a “mystery” that has been hidden from ages past will finally be solved. And what is the mystery that is to be revealed? To the Ephesians he describes it this way: “To the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:9, 10). To the Colossians He describes it this way: “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

Thus, according to the biblical witness, we actually have a part to play in this grand metanarrative. We can participate in the ultimate clarification about God’s character. We can, in fact—when we live by the principles of love that Christ’s disciples are supposed to be known for (see John 13:35)—be “character witnesses” on God’s behalf, declaring and demonstrating to the “principalities and powers in the heavenly places,” and to the inhabitants in this world, that God is, in fact, love.

And such a realization gives me a deeper appreciation for God—to realize that He is humble and loving enough to open Himself up to questions, to character assassination, to judging; and to realize that He has faith and confidence enough in me to allow my life—self-centered as it may be at times—to have an integral part in the answering of all those questions.

So, we will take part in that “great campaign of sabotage”?