Sabbath School Reflections: War in Heaven

Introducing the biblical cosmic conflict framework

John Peckham
Sabbath School Reflections: War in Heaven
Photo by NASA on Unsplash
Listen to the Reflections Sabbath School lesson review for this week

Day after day Absalom stood by the gate, the place where people came to the king with their disputes or grievances to receive judgment in lawsuits.

Absalom’s father, David, was the king, but Absalom wanted to be the king instead of his father. So when someone came to the gate for judgment, Absalom would engage them, listen to their problems and concerns, and say: “Oh, that I were made a judge in the land, and everyone who has any suit or cause would come to me; then I would give him justice” (2 Sam. 15:4). In this and other ways, “Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel” (2 Sam. 15:6).

Absalom’s musings, “Oh, that I were made a judge in the land” were effectively a rebuke of his father’s kingship. He might as well have been saying. “Oh, that I were made king, then I would solve your problems.” Absalom sought to take his father’s throne and, eventually, he did take it temporarily. Wishing to avoid bloodshed, David had temporarily left the palace and only through much hardship gained it back.

In some ways, this mirrors the cosmic conflict theme that runs throughout Scripture—the conflict between God’s kingdom of unselfish love and the rebellious kingdom of darkness of Satan and his cohorts. In this conflict, God is the one and only true king, but Satan—an angel who selfishly rebelled against God in an attempt to take God’s throne for himself—continuously slanders God and His government in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of creatures. Scripture is filled with material exhibiting this cosmic conflict between the kingdom of God and the domain of darkness.

Rather than attempting to provide an overview of this vast topic, this article will introduce the cosmic conflict (aka the great controversy) by seeking biblical answers to two questions that are crucial to understand.

  • Is there a real conflict between God and the forces of darkness?
  • What is the nature of this conflict?

Is there a Real Conflict?

To many, the answer to this first question will be an obvious, yes. Many others, however, are unaware of or downplay this cosmic conflict paradigm, even in the broader realm of Christian theology. One reason for this is the Enlightenment paradigm that tends to view the world in only natural terms such that many people today, especially in the West, no longer believe in the reality of supernatural figures such as angels and demons.

These celestial figures and the often unseen conflict in which they are engaged appear, however, throughout the storyline of Scripture. Indeed, the cosmic conflict itself is central to the story of redemption—to the very story of the gospel itself.[i] As Garrett DeWeese puts it: rejecting the reality of “spiritual beings” entails that one “dismiss totally the worldview of both the Old and the New Testaments, and indeed of Jesus himself.”[ii]

As part and parcel of the very story of Jesus, the cosmic conflict is crucial to the Christian story and not something that can be discarded or which should be downplayed. Among many other instances, Matthew alone records that the devil tempted Jesus in the wilderness (e.g., Matt. 4:1-11), Jesus repeatedly “cast out demons,” declaring “the kingdom of God has come” over and against the kingdom of Satan (Matt. 12:28, 26), and explicitly identified the devil as the enemy who opposes Christ’s good work and sows evil in the world (Matt. 13:37-39; cf. Matt. 25:41). Here and elsewhere, as Brian Han Gregg puts it, “the conflict between God and Satan is clearly a central feature of Jesus’ teaching and ministry.”[iii]

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

Let’s consider more closely Jesus’ parable of “a man who sowed good seed in his field” (Matt. 13:24).

What kind of seed? Good seed.

“But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares [noxious weeds] among the wheat and went his way” (Matt. 13:25).

When the grain sprouted, “the tares also appeared. So the servants of the owner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’” (Matt. 13:26, 27).

That sounds very much like the question people ask today about God. Didn’t God create the world entirely good? Why, then, is there evil in it—and so much of it?

To this, the landowner replies, “An enemy has done this” (Matt. 13:28).

We do not have to guess who this enemy is. Later, while explaining this parable to His disciples, Jesus identifies the enemy as “the devil” (Matt. 13:39).

“An enemy has done this” indeed.

But, to this answer, the servants ask further, “Do you want us then to go and gather them up?” (Matt. 13:28).

In other words, if an enemy has sown these tares, why not simply uproot them?

This is similar to another question people often ask today: Why doesn’t God simply uproot evil now?

“No,” the landowner replies, “lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest” (Matt. 13:29, 30).

Somehow, prematurely uprooting the tares would result in much wheat also being uprooted, an unacceptable level of collateral damage.

This reveals that, somehow, if God were to uproot evil prematurely by force, much good would also be uprooted—there would be far too much collateral damage.

The tares must be allowed to grow together with the wheat temporarily. Evil must be allowed to run its course for a time so God can finally eradicate the tares once and for all in a way that won’t uproot the wheat also.

The Origin of the Conflict

This parable is one of many biblical depictions of the cosmic conflict between Christ and the devil, “the great dragon” and “serpent of old . . . who deceives whole world” (Rev. 12:9). In this conflict, God often gets blamed for evil. But the devil is actually the one who sows the seeds of evil in this world—the enemy “ruler of this world” (John 12:31) who wages war against God’s kingdom (see, e.g., Rev. 12:7-9).

Elsewhere, Scripture details how evil came to our world. The story is found in Genesis 3 of Eve’s encounter with the serpent in Eden, whom Scripture elsewhere identifies as “that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12:9).

In that encounter, the devil claims that God is a liar (“you will not surely die,” verse 4) and that God doesn’t really want what is best for His children, but is intentionally keeping them in the dark (“God knows . . . your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God,” verse 5).

Here, Satan exhibits his constant strategy of slandering God’s character.[iv]

This is the same figure whom Ezekiel identifies as “the anointed cherub who covers”—that is, a covering cherub in the Most Holy Place of the heavenly sanctuary, near the very throne of God (Ezek. 28:14).

Twice, Ezekiel 28 describes this covering cherub as “perfect” at one time, in the second instance specifying, “You were perfect in your ways from the day you were created, till iniquity was found in you” (Ezek. 28:15; cf. 12).

God made this angel perfect, but he chose to rebel against God. He sinned by turning inward in pride—his “heart was lifted up because of” his “beauty” and he “corrupted” his “wisdom” (verse 17).

This is how evil originated in the cosmos. A covering cherub exercised his free will (granted by God because it is necessary for love) to reject God’s love and give birth to evil in what was, up to that point, God’s perfectly good creation in which there was no evil, pain, suffering, or death, but only pure goodness and bliss. And many other angels rebelled with him and now operate within the devil’s temporary domain of darkness (cf. Matt. 12:25-29; Acts 26:18; Col. 1:13; 2 Pet. 2:4; Rev. 12:7).

Isaiah 14 likewise describes Satan’s attempt to exalt himself above God, saying “I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God” and “I will ascend about the heights of the clouds, I will be like the Most High” (Isa. 14:13, 14).

Like Absalom, in his jealousy against God, Ezekiel 28 further explains that Satan became “filled with violence” by the “abundance of [his] trading” (Ezek. 28:16; cf. 18). That word “trading” derives from a Hebrew word that means “slander.”[v] So, this “cherub” who became the devil was going around and slandering God in heaven, sowing seeds of discord, much like Absalom did against David.

This is precisely what Satan later did in Eden and has been doing ever since in our world, maliciously slandering and defaming God’s character by depicting Him as a self-serving liar in order to foster rebellion.

The Nature of the Conflict

These and many other instances shed great light on the nature of the conflict. In this regard, one might rightly ask: How could there possibly be conflict between the all-powerful God and any mere creature—whether the devil or anyone else?

How could there possibly be conflict between the all-powerful God and any mere creature—whether the devil or anyone else?

Since my son was a little child, I have loved playing with him. I fondly remember pretending to arm wrestle with him when he was only about five years old.

I say pretending because, while he was trying as hard as he could to slam my arm to the ground and win the contest, I was hardly trying at all.

Why? If I used all my effort, there could be no contest at all.

Moreso, how could anyone be in a conflict against the all-powerful God?

Could a mere creature such as the devil (or anyone else) actually contest God?

Not if the conflict is one of sheer power. If God exercised all His power, there would be no contest whatsoever. The conflict cannot be one of sheer power, then.

If there is a conflict between God and Satan (or any other creature), as Scripture details, the conflict must be of another kind.

In fact, as Scripture portrays it, this is a conflict primarily over character (caused by the devil’s slanderous allegations against God). It is a conflict over who will be trusted and what will be believed about God’s character. A conflict in which the enemy slanders God’s character as his strategy to usurp God’s rule and the worship that belongs to God alone.

We’ve seen this already in the story of the Fall in Eden, in which the devil claimed that God is a liar who does not want what is best for us (Gen 3:4, 5).

In that episode, the devil made at least three slanderous claims:

  • God’s commandments are not fair.
  • God is a liar.
  • God did not really want the best for Eve (and hence also for us).

Likewise, we’ve seen that the covering cherub who fell and became the devil went around slandering God’s character in heaven (Ezek. 28:16).

Further, in the story of Job we find Satan not only slandering Job’s character in the heavenly court, but also slandering God and God’s judgment. He claimed that Job was not really blameless, upright, and God-fearing as God Himself had declared, but served God only out of selfish motivations (Job 1:8-11).

These are not isolated instances, but the consistent strategy of the enemy in this cosmic courtroom drama. Revelation thus describes the devil as the one who continually raises slanderous accusations against God’s people (and thus also against God) before the heavenly court—“the accuser of our brethren, who accused them before our God day and night” (Rev. 12:10; cf. Zech. 3:1, 2; Jude 9).

Against such a relentless onslaught, we desperately need an intercessor, Jesus Christ the righteous (see 1 John 2:1, 2). And praise the Lord that Christ “always lives to make intercession for” us, defeating the devil’s allegations and saving all who put their trust in Him (Heb. 7:25).

How to Settle a Conflict of Character?

But how can God settle this conflict over character?

If people are allowed freedom to think for themselves (a requirement of the kind of free will necessary for love), then a conflict over character cannot be settled by sheer power.

Imagine a governor accused of corruption. He was completely innocent, but accusations had flown and many of his constituents did not know who to believe. How much power would that governor need to exercise to clear his name?

No show of force or power could clear his name. Using his power to silence his accusers would only make things worse. Innocent though he was, the more executive power he used, the more likely his constituents would think he was, in fact, corrupt.

Slanderous allegations against one’s name cannot be defeated by force or by any show of power. The only way to defeat such allegations? To show them to be false by demonstration.

In our world, the name of God has been dragged through the mud. This is no accident. This is the relentless strategy of the devil in his rebellion against God.

The only way for God to root out evil, then, is by a sufficient demonstration of His character of love—showing the devil’s allegations to be false once and for all, demonstrating God’s goodness and love (see Rom. 3:25, 26; 5:8) so profoundly that the universe will be inoculated against evil forevermore. This, Christ does via the cross and through His ministry for us in the heavenly sanctuary.[vi]

The Dragon Ruler

For the time being, however, “the whole world lies under the sway of the wicked one,” the devil (1 John 5:19). The same one whom Revelation calls the “great dragon” and “that serpent of old . . . who deceives the whole world” (Rev. 12:9) and identifies as a celestial “ruler” behind the earthly kingdoms that oppose God’s rule and oppress God’s people over the ages (Rev. 12-13).

Revelation 13 prophesies of a beast from the sea. It is a composite beast consisting of parts of the four beasts of Daniel 7, “mouth of a lion,” “feet of a bear,” “like a leopard,” and having “seven heads and ten horns” (verses 1, 2). They represent four successive oppressive empires and beyond, including the little horn power that opposes God and persecutes God’s people, especially in the last days. Where does this “beast” get its power to oppose God and persecute His people over the ages? “The dragon gave him his power, his throne, and great authority” (Rev. 13:2; cf. Rev. 13:5; 17:13, 14) and “all the world marveled and followed the beast” and “worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast” (Rev. 13:3, 4).

Behind the oppressive rulers of this world who wage war against God’s kingdom, law, and truth stands the dragon ruler, Satan and his minions. It is in this context that an angel sent by God in response to Daniel’s prayers was opposed by an agent of evil called “the prince of Persia” for three entire weeks (Dan. 10:13).

Here and elsewhere throughout Scripture, the devil has some temporary and limited, yet real and significant rulership. Accordingly, in three separate instances, Jesus Himself calls Satan “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; cf. Matt; 12:25-28; Luke 4:6; 2 Cor. 4:4; Rev. 12:7-9).

Yet, Revelation also proclaims that the devil’s dominion is limited and temporary. Revelation 12:12 tells us the devil “knows that he has a short time.”

Christ came to rescue the world from this domain of the devil—coming as the second Adam to reclaim the rulership forfeited by Adam (1 Cor. 15:45; cf. Rom. 5:12-21; Col. 1:13).

As 1 John 3:8 teaches: “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil” (cf. Heb. 2:14; Rev. 12:9-11).

And Jesus Christ, the Righteous, defeats the enemy at every turn.

On one hand, the devil is:

(1) a liar from the beginning who deceives the whole world (Rev. 12:9; Matt. 4:3; cf. John 8:44; Acts 5:3; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 John 3:8; Rev. 2:10),

(2) the slanderer and accuser of God and His people who accuses them day and night in the heavenly court (Rev. 12:10; cf. 13:6; Job 1–2; Zech. 3:1, 2; Jude 9), and

(3) the usurping dragon ruler of this world (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; cf. Matt. 12:24-29; Luke 4:5, 6; Acts 26:18; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:2; 1 John 5:19; Rev. 12-13).

In direct contrast:

(1) Christ came into the world to testify to the truth, defeating Satan’s lies, mass deception, and disinformation campaign (John 18:37).

(2) Christ supremely manifests God’s perfect righteousness and love via the cross—demonstrating God’s righteousness and God’s perfect love (Rom 3:25, 26; 5:8) and defeating the devil’s slanderous allegations in the heavenly court (see Rev. 12:10, 11).

(3) Christ reclaims the rulership lost by Adam and Eve on behalf of humanity, establishing His everlasting kingdom of unselfish love (cf. Rev. 11:15).

For now, however, we are in enemy territory. Why does the world look like a warzone? Because it is one—a cosmic warzone. This is why it often looks like evil reigns in our world. In short, there is an enemy ruler in this world at war against God and His people. But, through Christ’s work, his rulership is quickly approaching its utter end.

Through His victory at the cross, Christ legally defeats the devil’s slanderous allegations and even now He works in the heavenly sanctuary. One day soon He will return to fully uproot the devil’s kingdom once and for all.

In the meantime, we all have a choice as to which kingdom we will belong to. Those whose allegiance lies with Christ the Lamb are to witness of His goodness and love and proclaim the message given by the three angels of Revelation 14:6-12. No one can choose for us. We must choose whether we will follow the way of the Lamb (the way of unselfish love) or the way of the dragon (the way of selfish evil).


There is much, much more to say about the nature of this conflict that is even now playing out all around us, which I do not have space to elaborate further on in this brief article.

For the purposes of this introductory article, however, I will simply conclude with three points that summarize the cosmic conflict framework:

  • There is a cosmic conflict between God’s kingdom and the domain of the devil and his minions (see., e.g., Rev 12:7-10; cf. Matt 12:24; 25:41), who are celestial fallen creatures that rebelled against God’s government (cf. 2 Pet. 2:4; Col. 1:16, 17).
  • This conflict is not a conflict of sheer power, which would be impossible given God’s omnipotence. Rather, it is a conflict over character (an epistemic conflict) that involves allegations against God’s judgment and government that can only be effectively met by demonstration of God’s perfect righteousness and love (see, e.g., Job 1-2; Zech. 3:1-3; Matt. 13:27-29; John 8:44; Rom. 3:3-8, 25, 26; 5:8; Jude 9; Rev. 12:9-11; 13:4-6; Cf. Gen. 3:1-6).
  • The devil, whom Jesus Himself calls the “ruler of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11; cf. 2 Cor. 4:4), possesses some real authority—some genuine but limited and temporary rulership—in this world, which is quickly approaching its end (see, e.g., Rev. 12:12).

Amidst this darkness, however, there is wonderful news of the everlasting gospel.

The victory of Christ against the forces of darkness is assured. Accordingly, we can take solace in the fact that this world is not how God intends it to be. There is a future that He will bring in which there is no evil or suffering or pain, forevermore (see Rev. 21:3-4).

This world is not how God intends it to be. There is a future that He will bring in which there is no evil or suffering or pain, forevermore.

What is taking so long? We’re not told all the details, but in Christ’s parable of the wheat and the tares we are told that God does not uproot evil immediately because doing so would also uproot good—that is, there would be an unacceptable level of collateral damage.

God does not lack power. Nor is He unconcerned. But He is dealing with evil in the only way that will put it down once and for all, by a demonstration of His character (recall sheer power will not work), manifested supremely in the ultimate demonstration of God’s love at the cross (Rom. 5:8; cf. 3:25, 26).

All will be right in the end! In the meantime, let us take hope and place our faith in the goodness of God who subjects Himself to scrutiny, and even to being crucified, in order to save the world from darkness. And let all those who belong to Christ commit to doing our part to spread light and love in a world filled with darkness and hate, and thus “follow the Lamb wherever He goes” (Rev. 14:4).

[i] For much more on the biblical cosmic conflict framework, see John C. Peckham, Theodicy of Love: Cosmic Conflict and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), especially chapters 3-5. And for an exploration of how this cosmic conflict framework sheds light on why we pray and how prayer makes a difference, see John C. Peckham, Why We Pray: Understanding Prayer in the Context of Cosmic Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2024).

[ii] Garrett DeWeese, “Natural Evil: A ‘Free Process’ Defense,” in God and Evil, ed. Chad Meister and James K. Dew (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2013), p. 63.

[iii] Brian Han Gregg, What Does the Bible Say About Suffering? (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2016), p. 66. For much more on this, see Peckham, Theodicy of Love, chapter 3.

[iv] See John Peckham, “Liar, Liar: The devil’s strategy of deception and slander,” Adventist Review, April 2024, p. 32-35.

[v] The term, rekullah, is typically translated “trading” in this verse, but the verb more specifically “signifies going from person to person dealing in goods or in gossip.” Richard M. Davidson, “And There Was Gossip in Heaven,” Adventist Review, Jan. 24, 2013, p. 23,

[vi] For much more on Christ’s defeat of the devil’s allegations before the heavenly court, see Peckham, Theodicy of Love, chapter 5.

John Peckham

John Peckham is associate editor of Adventist Review and research professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University.