Feature

Norman R. Gulley

is a research professor in systematic theology at Southern Adventist University, Collegedale, Tennessee, United States.

​Why is God so Misunderstood?

One of the great tragedies of human history centers on how few people understand God. Indeed individuals often misunderstand God and take His name in vain. Natural disasters are often dubbed “acts of God.” Misfortunes are placed at His feet. Taking His name in vain becomes routine in every day talk. People bad-mouth God at every turn.

So many even misunderstand God in Christian churches, Christian preaching, and the way Scripture is interpreted. Does God really choose only the elect to be saved and the rest to be thrown away? Does God allow some to be born lost and stay lost? Does God give irresistible grace to the elect alone, but abandons the rest?

This article intends to explore why God is so misunderstood, and its point of departure focuses on the biblical worldview that affirms the misunderstanding of God, beginning with Satan questioning God’s character and leading a rebellion in heaven against God and all He stands for (Rev. 12:7–10). This cosmic controversy remains at the foundation of Satan’s attack against God’s character and motives. Ever since Satan deceived Adam and Eve, he has carried on the battle against God on earth. We shall focus on the biblical data that documents what goes on behind the scenes of human history so as to have a right understanding of God and the deceptive ways of Satan.

The cosmic controversy

The worldview based on the cosmic controversy between God and Satan remains central to Adventist theology. 1 Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 provide a brief overview of this controversy, and how Satan continues with his purpose of maligning God. Most scholars interpret Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 as local kings of Babylon and Tyre, respectively. They do not see, imbedded in these chapters, insights into the cosmic controversy. Such scholars include Martin Luther2 and John Calvin3 in their comments on Isaiah 14. John Oswalt notes that “the great expositors of the Reformation were unanimous in arguing against” these chapters referring to Satan.4

However, several thought leaders in church history have grasped the deeper significance of these chapters. Such leaders include Origen (185–254), Peter Lombard (1100–1160), Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), and John Wyclif (c. 1328–1384). Some theologians, such as Jerome (340–420) and Augustine (354–430), saw in Isaiah 14 a wider worldview. Most of the church fathers, from Augustine to Gregory the Great (c. 590–604), believed Isaiah 14 as referring to Satan. 5

Some contemporary scholars also understand the deeper significance of Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28. For example, Gregory Boyd and William Dembski believe Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 refer to Satan. 6 Boyd rightly believes that the “cosmic warfare constitutes one of the central threads that weave together the whole tapestry of the scriptural narrative.”7

Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28 include data that transcends local application. For example, the local king of Babylon had never been in heaven (Isa. 14:12) nor had the local king of Tyre resided in Eden or appeared as a guardian cherub at heaven’s throne (Ezek. 28:13, 14). In both passages the kings were cast out of heaven because of pride (Isa. 14:12, 15; Ezek. 28:16, 17). The king of Tyre is said to have been perfect until sin was found in him (Eze. 28:15), which cannot be said of any human since the Fall (Rom. 5:16–18).

The fact that Lucifer (Satan) was a covering cherub at God’s throne indicates the privileged position God gave to him. Knowing of his future fall, God evidently gave him every opportunity to be grateful and that exposed his rebellion as unreasonable. The fact that he was created perfect, yet became proud, indicates that God did not create evil. Lucifer made this choice. He fell because of a distorted view about God, a product of his own imagination. He became the source of all distortions about God. Christ called him “the father of lies” (John 8:44). 8

In Isaiah 14, Satan says, “ ‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High’ ” (vv. 13, 14). Clearly Satan wanted to usurp the place of God. The word devil in Greek (diabolos) means to “accuse, bring charges with hostile intent,” and the word Satan in Greek (Satanas) means “adversary” or “slanderer.” The “widespread trade” of Ezekiel 28:16 is rekullah, the Hebrew word which, in this context, probably means “slander” (gossip about God).9 This throws wide open the scheme of Satan to distort the truth about God. Pride led him to have too high an opinion of himself that lessened his opinion of God.

Satan’s strategy

Scripture speaks of Satan winning angels over to his side (Rev. 12:4; Jude 1:6). He did it through distorting the truth about God. How do we know, and how did he do it? How could Satan undermine the goodness of God when angels had known nothing but His goodness? Did Satan insinuate that God was holding them back from their full potential? Was this his approach?To answer these questions, we need to see how Satan later tempted Eve in Eden. We know from Scripture that Satan was “in Eden, the garden of God” (Ezek. 28:13); that he was the “ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray” (Rev. 12:9). We know that Satan used a serpent as his medium to tempt Eve.

Let’s follow Satan’s approach in Eden. The serpent asked Eve,
“ ‘Did God really say, “You must not eat from any tree in the garden”?’ ” (Gen. 3:1; emphasis added). Here is a question of surprise. “You mean you cannot eat any fruit at all?” Satan implied, “Why did He create it for you if you cannot eat it?” Satan knew this would invite a response. It worked. Eve’s response, “We can eat from all trees, but one is off limits. We must not eat or touch it, or we will die” (see v. 3).

Yes, God did say if you eat the forbidden fruit “you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Satan countered God’s words, saying, “ ‘You will not surely die’ ” (v. 4). Satan must have said this in such a way that Eve did not realize he was doubting God. For we know that Eve did not question the serpent. Rather, she was faced with contrary claims, and was pondering this dilemma. Her Creator Christ
(Col. 1:15, 16; Heb. 1:1, 2) had given her life, a husband, a garden with luxurious fruit trees, flowers, and much more, with the freedom to commune with Him. Satan had given her nothing, except a contrary claim to her Creator. Why did Eve distrust the One who gave her everything, and trust the one who gave her nothing?

The serpent said, “ ‘God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God’ ” (Gen. 3:5). Heady stuff! Eve was vulnerable to the bait: “When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it” (v. 6). How did she know wisdom comes from eating the fruit? Well, she saw the serpent speak. If the fruit gave wisdom to a serpent to speak human language, then as a human she could become as God.

“Seeing is believing” trapped Eve. She thought she had empirical evidence that the serpent was more trustworthy than God. Eve’s slippery slope began with doubting God’s words, and doubting God’s words led to disobedience. She should have believed God’s words, for faith in God enables one to overcome Satan’s deceptions. To get angels to rebel in a perfect heaven, and humans to rebel in a perfect world would require a work of distorting the truth about God. Satan was successful in heaven and on earth. His approach in both venues was to destroy trust in God, and since it worked so well in heaven, he used the same approach on earth.

What Christians face today

It seems logical to assume that Satan has used the same approach on all humans ever since. Those who listen to us preach are just as vulnerable as Eve if they focus on “seeing is believing” rather than on “believing God’s Word is seeing” through Satan’s counterfeits. In other words, doubting God’s written Word today is no different from doubting God’s spoken word in Eden. For Satan’s first words on earth questioned God’s words. He has done this ever since. He even causes Christians to distrust God.

Satan is in the business of distorting God’s Word, leading to a misunderstanding of God’s character, and deceiving countless Christians.

For example, Genesis 1 informs us that God created the world and all that is in it in six days. The author of Hebrews affirms the Creation record: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (Heb. 11:3, NKJV). With the Bible so clear, how come most Christians accept evolution, some suggesting that God used that as a method of creating new forms of life?

The answer is clear. Evolution, whether theistic or otherwise, remains a masterpiece of the enemy’s deceptions. Why? Because theistic evolution says that God chose billions of years in an evolutionary process of death, mutation, and evolving, to produce human beings when He could have done it instantly. What kind of God is this? Is He really a God of love?

If survival of the fittest was God’s chosen means to create humans as some theistic evolutionists would suggest, why does God oppose humans earning their own salvation? If humans arrived by chance, a result of evolutionary accident, is there any purpose in human life? If the creation of humans was not a personal act of God’s love, the result is tragic: naturalism replaces supernaturalism; a counterfeit replaces the Creator. Such consequences are compatible with Satan, for he wants to replace God, even though he cannot make a blade of grass.

Furthermore, evolution claims it has empirical evidence for its authenticity. This evidence questions the biblical Creation record and God’s words, even as Satan did in Eden. Satan is in the business of distorting God’s Word, leading to a misunderstanding of God’s character, and deceiving countless Christians.

God’s self-revelation

The only way for us to see through Satan’s many distortions about God consists of allowing God’s self-revelation in Scripture to fill our minds and hearts with God’s love. This happens when we seriously study His Word with prayer and when that Word is preached with all the power of the Spirit. Some theologians believe that God’s love is one attribute along with His other attributes. This is not so. By nature God is love, and all other attributes are qualified by His love. 10

This God of love needs to be placed continually before the congregation. But how can this be done when people attack Scripture constantly? Even in seminaries, professors question God’s Word, echoing what Satan did in Eden. Many no longer consider that Scripture is God’s self-revelation. Instead, revelation is seen as taking place between God and the biblical writers. Scripture is seen as full of human responses to revelation instead of God’s self-revelation. Such views make the Bible a human, not a divine-human, book. When such naturalism replaces supernaturalism as the source of Scriptures, we are indeed deprived of the most potent weapon to fight Satan’s cunningness and deception.

Consider also the biblical teaching of salvation. Most Christians today believe in grace, and diminish the importance of the law. They would argue that we are saved by grace and do not need the law. But that is a deceptive argument. The Bible says sin is the transgression of the law (1 John 3:4). If the law is done away with, there would be no definition of sin, and hence no need of salvation, and no need of grace. God’s love is manifest in His law as much as in His grace. Law, as God intended it, protects rather than restricts people. Satan opposes God’s law because he opposes God’s rule, which is based upon His law.

Conclusion

Thus, in every possible way Satan attempts to misrepresent God and lead His people away from Him. That way he cunningly devised to fight the war in the cosmic conflict. As pastors and preachers, our responsibility includes witnessing with the power of the Holy Spirit, showing who God is and what He is like, within the context of the great controversy. Our preaching should uphold the Creator God, the Giver of the Word, and the God who so loved us that He gave His only Son, Jesus, to be our Savior. Our preaching continues as a sacred opportunity to counter Satan’s misrepresentations of God. Preach God’s Word. Your congregation’s deepest needs in church worship are met through Bible-based, Christ-centered, Calvary-centered preaching. Let God reveal Himself through your words. This describes our holy calling. Only a revelation of God can overcome the distortions about God. Every sermon needs to declare the awesome love of God (Exod. 34:6; Jer. 9:23, 24; 1 John 4:8–16).

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This article first appeared in the December, 2011, issue of Ministry magazine. It was reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.


  1. Fundamental Belief 8 in Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, 2005). See Norman R. Gulley, Systematic Theology: Prolegomena (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2003), 1:387–453.
  2. Luther’s Works (St. Louis, MO: Concordia), 16:140, 141.
  3. Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1989), 7/1: 442–444.
  4. John N. Oswalt, The New International Commentary on the OT: The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1986), 320.
  5. See the following for sources on these persons: José M. Bertoluci, “The Son of the Morning and the Guardian Church in the Context of the Controversy between Good and Evil” (ThD dissertation, Andrews University, 1985), 4–8.
  6. Gregory A. Boyd, God at War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997), 157–162; William A. Dembski, The End of Christianity: Finding a Good God in an Evil World (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Co., 2009), 134, 135.
  7. Boyd, 24, 25, quote on 25.
  8. All scriptures quoted in this article, except as otherwise stated, are from the New International Version.
  9. See Richard M. Davidson, “Cosmic Metanarrative for the Coming Millennium,” Journal of the Adventist Theological Society 11, (2000) no. 1:2:108.
  10. See Gulley, Systematic Theology: God (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University Press, 2011), no. 2, chapters 1 and 2.
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