24 May 2015

“The Battle Between Good and Evil” Is a Staged Conflict

Religious 33 Comments

When I was much younger, I had this idea that there was a mighty struggle between good and evil. God was (of course) leading the forces of light, while the Devil (aka Satan) was leading the forces of darkness. You would see this epic clash play out in literature and film, with secular works such as Star Wars but even with obviously Christian fiction such as Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia.

But it turns out I that I was totally wrong. There were certain key events in the Bible that showed how obviously incorrect my view was, but I just didn’t have the capacity back then to take these passages at face value. Here are some examples:

==> Exodus 9: 11The magicians could not stand before Moses because of the boils, for the boils were on the magicians as well as on all the Egyptians. 12And the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he did not listen to them, just as the LORD had spoken to Moses.

      13Then the LORD said to Moses, “Rise up early in the morning and stand before Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me.””


==> Job 1: “6One day the angelsa came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satanb also came with them.7The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?”

Satan answered the Lord, “From roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.”

8Then the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”

9“Does Job fear God for nothing?” Satan replied. 10“Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has? You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land. 11But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.”

12The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, then, everything he has is in your power, but on the man himself do not lay a finger.”

==> Jeremiah 27:6: “Now I will give all your countries into the hands of my servant Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon; I will make even the wild animals subject to him.”

==> 2 Chronicles 36: 22Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia—in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah—the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying, 23“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever there is among you of all His people, may the LORD his God be with him, and let him go up!’””

==> Isaiah 53: 9His [the Messiah’s] grave was assigned with wicked men,
         Yet He was with a rich man in His death,
         Because He had done no violence,
         Nor was there any deceit in His mouth.

10But the LORD was pleased
         To crush Him, putting Him to grief;
         If He would render Himself as a guilt offering,
         He will see His offspring,
         He will prolong His days,
         And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.”


==> John 12:  “37Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him.38This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet:

“Lord, who has believed our message

and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”h

39For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere:

40He [the LORD] has blinded their eyes

and hardened their hearts,

so they can neither see with their eyes,

nor understand with their hearts,

nor turn—and I would heal them.i

Let me go again to my analogy workhorse, Star Wars. In the world of the movies, did Anakin Skywalker choose a path of evil? Yes he did. Wait, wasn’t it really his lightsaber that killed all those kids? Eh, sure, but the lightsaber didn’t have free will; it was purely an instrument in the hands of Anakin. He was the one who murdered the young Jedis in training.

Now it’s true, Anakin didn’t simply turn from a good little boy into Darth Vader on his own initiative. He was seduced by Palpatine (who would later become the Emperor). But even though Palpatine influenced Anakin, that is not the same thing as saying Anakin controlled his lightsaber. Anakin still had free will, even though he came under the spell of Palpatine.

We clearly see a battle between good and evil in Star Wars. But who is the analog of God? Is it Yoda? Nope. Is it “the Force”? Nope. It’s George Lucas. He not only creates and leads the good guys, he also creates and “leads” the bad guys. Darth Vader and the Emperor are the servants of Lucas, allowing him to tell the story so his work can fulfill its purpose. George Lucas isn’t a bad guy even though there is an obvious sense in which he killed the young Jedis in training, via his total sovereignty over the actions of Anakin Skywalker.

The same is true of God in our universe. He is in total control. We have free will, and choose to commit evil, and the Devil tempts us and tricks us into following a path that leads to our destruction. Yet, at the same time, God is in absolute control and oversees it all; everything unfolds according to His divine plan which He knew before the universe existed. God is not a sinner, even though He permits sin and has the power to stop it, and indeed incorporates sin into His plan.

At this point various Christian sects go in different directions. For example, Calvinists are pretty hardcore and go places with God’s sovereignty over Satan that even other born again Christians shy away from. (Check out this message from John Piper to see an example.) But for sure, every Bible-believing Christian acknowledged that there is no real battle between God and Satan, in the sense that it’s a nail biter and we’re not sure which side will triumph. If God had wanted to, He could have destroyed Satan in the Garden of Eden, or after the Flood, or two weeks after Jesus ascended into heaven, or… The reason Satan is still influencing our world is that God allows him to. This is nothing at all like Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, even though Aslan is a Christ figure. Aslan didn’t have the power to stop the Witch from hurting all of her victims over the years.

33 Responses to ““The Battle Between Good and Evil” Is a Staged Conflict”

  1. Darien says:

    Thank you for this, Bob. This is an important theological point that very many people — and nearly the entirety of pop culture — miss. It’s far more exciting for your book or movie or video game to portray a grand Zoroastrian struggle, with armies of angels fighting armies of demons, and God running a real risk of losing if not for the timely intervention of Our Hero. But, theologically speaking, it’s utterly goofy. If God is God, then He is absolute in a sense that all the kings and generals surely are not, and there can’t be any adversary that could overthrow Him in this fashion.

  2. Toby says:

    “The same is true of God in our universe. He is in total control. We have free will, and choose to commit evil, and the Devil tempts us and tricks us into following a path that leads to our destruction. Yet, at the same time, God is in absolute control and oversees it all; everything unfolds according to His divine plan which He knew before the universe existed. God is not a sinner, even though He permits sin and has the power to stop it, and indeed incorporates sin into His plan.”

    I suppose that you could also (re-)formulate this as a principal-agent problem with God as the principal and we as the agents.

  3. Jan Masek says:

    Why is it good to fear God? Isn’t fear a bad emotion?

    • Grane Peer says:

      No, fear is great, it’s why I don’t put my fingers in animals mouths.

    • Darien says:

      Just as Grane says, “fear of God” is understood to be a good thing, as it helps keep us from sin, and helps us maintain perspective. The fear of God is not to be mistaken for some type of blind, unreasoning terror; rather, it springs from the understanding that this world is ephemeral, and that God stands outside and above. He offers bounty and mercy far greater than what can be found in the world, but His wrath is also far more terrible than any of its perils. This understanding that God can inflict punishment much more serious than anything you’ll find in the world, and that, as such, one should not be turned away from Him even by threats of worldly harm, is the origin of the fear of God.

      This article is a decent, brief introduction to the idea: http://www.christianitytoday.com/biblestudies/bible-answers/spirituallife/what-does-it-mean-to-fear-god.html

  4. Giovanni says:

    Stupid (and old) question, but, as a striving christian myself, I am struggling against the following: how do you reconcile your Christianity with the existence of other religions in the world? How can they all be invalid? Even Judaism, the religion of the people who strictly obeyed God’s commandments and were guided by God through various hard episodes?

    • Carl says:

      Easy. All the other religions are wrong and their followers are in hell.

  5. Yosef says:

    Bob, sticking with the Star Wars analogy, in what sense does Anakin have free will? All of his actions are completely determined by Lucas. There is no possibility for disagreement between Anakin and Lucas, no possibility of independent action of Anakin, or the ability for him to say “Actually George, I’d rather do this, not that”. Lucas in an all powerful Pharoh declaring: “So it shall be written, so it shall be done”.

    If you are considering only the view within in the movie, then Anakin has free will. However, once you introduce the layer (or dimension) above the book, which contains Lucas, Anakin no longer has free will. In this expanded view, the only agent of choice is Lucas.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Yosef wrote:

      Bob, sticking with the Star Wars analogy, in what sense does Anakin have free will?

      Anakin has free will in the same way that Indiana Jones has a whip. It’s in the story. You can pretend you don’t see the difference between saying “Anakin killed those kids” and “The lightsaber killed those kids” but I think it’s because you want Christianity to not make sense, rather than you not really being able to see the obvious point I’m making.

      • E. Harding says:

        Bob, I don’t think the point you’re making is obvious. Certainly not to me, or to most atheists.

        • Bob Murphy says:

          Bob, I don’t think the point you’re making is obvious. Certainly not to me, or to most atheists.

          If I asked you or any other atheist, “What is the name of the ship that Captain Kirk commands?” you would say “the Enterprise.” You wouldn’t say, “There’s no such thing as Captain Kirk, he was invented by Gene Roddenberry.”

          Anakin Skywalker was created by George Lucas. Anakin is a male, he is very arrogant, he is strong with the force, he’s a great pilot, and he has free will.

          • Andrew Keen says:

            I think I’m on your side Bob, but it does sound like you are saying that humans have free will because it is canon that humans have free will in God’s telling of the universe and not because it is logically consistent to say that humans have free will with respect to God’s role as creator and ruler of the universe.

      • Yosef says:

        Bob, I am not pretending I don’t see the difference. I even wrote in the second paragraph that if you consider *only* the movie, then Anakin has free will. I think we agree on that. But if you consider that there is another dimension above the story, which includes within it George Lucas, then it is not true to say that Anakin has free will, within the context of that dimension. At that level, only George Lucas has free will. That is why I asked in what sense; I wasn’t being glib. It really does depend on what context, or view, you are considering.

        Let me put it another way. Within the Star Wars movies, in which the being George Lucas does not exist, Anakin has free will. Within the Star Wars movies, there is no Lucas who writes and directs the story of Anakin Skywalker, so Anakin makes (bad) choices, and Anakin bears responsibility for killing those kids. But in our world, which is a layer above the movies, Ankain has no free will. He simply acts out the whims of his creator, George Lucas. George Lucas has Anakin kill those kids. Is George Lucas evil? Of course not, because George Lucas also created those kids, and they have no more free will than Anakin. In our world, at our level, George Lucas has free will, he can write whatever story he wants, and make Anakin do whatever he (Lucas) wants. Anakin is to Lucas what a lightsaber is to Anakin.

        Now suppose we consider a dimension, or layer, above ours, where God resides. God is to us what Lucas is to Anakin. If we consider *only* our story then we have free will, just like Anakin within the movies. But once we look higher, then only God has free will, just like Lucas with Anakin in our world.

        • David Leksen says:

          I agree with you. The idea that everything that happens is God’s plan, and the idea that my will is “free” (that I can make decisions independent of my genetics and conditioning) are contradictory as I understand them. Ultimately, the universe is responsible for everything. We assign each other practical responsibility for our actions in our daily lives, but we don’t have fundamental moral responsibility since none of us created ourselves. None of us got to choose our genetics, nor our experiences that have shaped our brains since the day we were born. “I” am not the creator of me. If anyone should go to hell, it’s the God that sends people to hell for doing things which they couldn’t have done otherwise. Some forgiving God! Not..

  6. Gil says:

    Talk about a circular argument. Where is free will if God is always in control? Can God sin? Can God do whatever He wants and it can’t be called a sin because he’s God? If people supposedly have free will and use it sin so God hit people down hard then God is punishing free will. And if God knows the future then free will cannot exist at all. And so forth.

    • anon says:

      It doesn’t seem quite fair that God would harden your heart against his will and then kill thousands of your people, many of them children, as a consequence of his own decision. But I’m sure there’s a thousand-page explanation that will make this mythical narrative palatable to people who have a psychological stake in believing it literally occurred or that there is a father figure who cares whether you fool around with your neighbor’s wife but is A-OK with slaughtering some stuck-up gentile for a decision he prevented said gentile from even participating in.

      The most useful lesson that politics, economics, and extrinsic religion can teach us is that most people will believe literally anything if you just strike the right narrative and offer to relieve their existential anxiety. If the local pastor can convince people they’ll live forever in bliss for listening to an hour’s worth of “be good!” each week, is it any wonder that Californians keep falling prey to Brown and his fellow water socialists?

  7. Z says:

    Very interesting, but I think you just made one typo. Darth Vader was on the good side, not the evil side.

  8. E. Harding says:

    Also, I’m glad Bob has greatly and visibly advanced in his understanding of the Bible since childhood. Many Christians don’t do even this.

    • Z says:

      Same thing applies to atheists as well. Most atheists cling to their secular humanistic belief system and don’t advance in their understanding to moral nihilism.

      • Grane Peer says:

        There is nothing wrong with that.

        • Z says:

          There’s nothing ‘morally’ wrong with it, sure. It’s wrong in terms of finding the truth.

          • Grane Peer says:

            There is nothing wrong with that.

  9. Kevin Regal says:


    That’s a wonderful analogy. Thanks. I think Lewis might take issue with your characterization of the relationship of Aslan to the witch, though. Though the Narnians can’t see it and never understand why it isn’t used, don’t they maintain that Aslan did have that kind of sovereign power over the witch, only he chose (for reasons beyond their comprehension) not to exercise that power–he allowed the witch to rule.

    In one way, Lewis’s analogy has a an advantage, for Aslan himself actually enters the story, whereas Lucas never becomes a character. God is the sovereign creator as you illustrate with Star Wars, but he is also a character in the universe as Aslan is in the Narnia story.

    • Bob Murphy says:

      Kevin, yeah, I should probably re-read the Chronicles before being so sure about Aslan. I just remember he had a line like, “Don’t talk to me about the magic, I was there when it was created.” I guess even here, technically Jesus the Son says there are things only the Father knows, etc.

  10. LOTR says:

    Hi Bob – interesting points, but I wouldn’t lump The Lord of the Rings in with Star Wars and Narnia. In LOTR (if you are familiar with the mythos) there is a God, who is in control of everything, permits evil and even brings good out of it. He rarely intervenes directly, instead using his servants (essentially angels), but it is clear that he has the ultimate power and is not on a level with the fallen angels – as is clearly shown in the creation story at the beginning of the Silmarillion.

  11. Innocent says:


    First of all great post. I agree that there is no ‘real’ struggle of good versus evil. God wins…

    Please note I do not ‘believe’ anything that I am about to write, sometimes I pose questions and think of things, this is meant as an exercise in thought not a serious theological point. A bit of theological rambling if you do not mind.

    Now one of the things I have been speculating with for some time is what is time. What if God is us. Not us now but us in the future. That man kinds ultimate destination is to have all power over the universe and that we are reaching back in time in order to ensure that we make it there. It would explain in part why church records and other genealogical works by churches are so important, it allows us to trace ourselves back through time in order to ensure that all things have been done properly. You may say it is circular reasoning but that would only be true if time where linear.

    On that same topic what is our true limits? What happens when we have all time to learn and grow? Would God stop our progression ( would that not mean damnation? ) Or would God encourage our curiosity, our thirst for understanding and knowledge? So what does it mean when we inherit the kingdom of god or are joint heirs with Christ.

    What is it that God really wants us to learn here on Earth? Could it be that He simply wants us to learn to be like a little child, submissive, meek, humble? What do those factors add up to, I would argue teachable. That God actually intends for us to learn. Learn what? What is any beings purpose, including God? Does God need our praise? To what end would a being of all power have in receiving accolades of beings so clearly inferior. If we are God’s children then what does He want us to be when we grow up?

    hopefully I did not just create a huge debate. Please do not take this post seriously, it is one in which I have no answers only questions. I know what is written very well, but what is written only leads to additional questions. Ones that enrich the soul to be sure but are simply more questions.

    Cheer all and happy question asking.

  12. knoxharrington says:

    Did this bother anyone else?

    “We have free will, and choose to commit evil, and the Devil tempts us and tricks us into following a path that leads to our destruction. Yet, at the same time, God is in absolute control and oversees it all; everything unfolds according to His divine plan which He knew before the universe existed.”

    Are we really choosing and exercising free will if we can do none other than follow God’s predetermined plan? If God has a predetermined plan for us to sin “and indeed incorporates sin into His plan” are we really committing sin? If God has determined that we will sin, know we will sin, and, in fact, it is part of his plan, are we morally culpable? We are in effect “commanded to sin” [my quotes] by God himself.

  13. Dinch says:

    I think this essay is a decent counter to the idea that God himself does the hardening, or is the direct causative agent in these instances. Ancient Hebrew idioms are strange to us modern English speakers. I think it is best to interpret the scriptures within the lens of the entire canon, and not simply take a seemingly odd translation or verbiage at face value if it seems to contradict the overall theme of the scriptures itself.


  14. Tel says:

    I was despairing at my inability to make a contribution on the religious level, but this has been going around, which is more insightful that I could do anyhow…

    Being a leftie is like being a Catholic, in that it’s a constant stream of neverending guilt. We’re expected to constantly atone for our privilege, which, like original sin, we can never be rid of. And we don’t even get the cool artwork. If you have otherwise normal liberal friends, every few weeks they’ll post something online akin to cult propaganda. It’s a combination of an assertion and a warning that anyone who disbelieves is, in their words, “not a decent human being”. This is fine when you agree with the party line completely, but that kind of conformity of thought is neither healthy nor desirable.


    Good support for the staged conflict theory.

  15. Ethan says:

    Interesting article! That John Piper sermon actually cleared a lot of my thoughts up. His book Desiring God is probably the best book I have ever read in Christianity, even my Armenian friends love it. Have you read it?

  16. Peter Griffin says:

    Bob has been Judaized. Don’t let him do the same to you.

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