At the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916, the British Army lost nearly half a million men, some 19,240 dead on just the first day alone. So great was the devastation and loss of life that World War I later became known as the "war to end all wars."
However, in the first year of the war, something happened that stopped it—at least for a day or two. Although there was no official truce and it was not universally enjoyed along the full length of the front, British and German troops put down their weapons and left their trenches to meet each other in "no-man's-land," the empty space between the opposing sides. Smiles, jokes and small gifts were exchanged. At Frelinghien, France, the troops enjoyed festivities, including the sharing of Christmas gifts sent to the front from home and Christmas trees erected above the German trenches. At many other sites along the western front, soldiers stopped fighting and began to sing, play music and recover their dead and fallen comrades.
What could spontaneously cause soldiers who had been trained to fight and kill to cease fighting and fraternize with the enemy? It was the memorial day for the birth of the Savior of the world, Jesus Christ. On Christmas Eve, 1914, the killing stopped, and peace broke out, albeit for a very short time.
A Universe at War
Even before time on Earth began, the universe was engaged in a terrible conflict. John, the last living disciple of Jesus, described this conflict from what he saw in a vision while a prisoner on the island of Patmos. "There was war in heaven," he said. "Michael [another name for Jesus] and his angels fought against the dragon [Satan], and the dragon and his angels fought back" (Revelation 12:7).
It is hard to imagine that a war could occur in heaven. One always thinks of heaven as a place of peace, love and goodness; a place where God dwells in harmony with His created beings. Yet John was given a vision of heaven as a place of death, carnage and destruction. As he continued to watch, John discovered that the dragon lost the battle, and he and his angels were forced out of heaven.
However, in spite of the fact that Satan chose evil over good, God was not prepared to destroy him immediately. Rather, God allowed Satan and the angels that he had deceived to live. Why? Consider this: If God had destroyed Satan for his evil words, thoughts and actions, God's other created beings might have legitimately questioned His justice. They would have wondered whether He really was the God of love and mercy that He claimed to be. These angels had not previously known sin or evil, and therefore they could not have understood its consequences and where it would lead. Understanding the consequences of an action by experiencing it is one of the important ways that created beings learn. With my own children, I, at times, have to let them experience the natural consequences of their decisions, not to punish them, but in love to let them learn a lasting lesson that will protect them.
Similarly, God allowed Satan and his fellow rebels to live and carry out their program so that every creature God had ever made would know that the end result of evil is death and destruction. As moral beings with the freedom to choose, none of them would ever choose evil again.
A World at War
John continues to watch as "the great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him" (Revelation 12:9). It was here, on our planet that had been untouched by evil and death, that Satan began his wicked crusade against humanity (Genesis 3). The Bible tells us that when God created our world, it was very good (Genesis 1:31). However, God also gave humans the same freedom of choice that He had given to the angels.
So when the deceptive serpent said to Eve, "'You will not surely die'"; rather, "you will be like God knowing, good and evil,' " she believed him, and in so doing she disbelieved God (Genesis 3:4, 5).
As a direct consequence, the perfect earth became a world at war. Not only were the thoughts and actions of people altered; so was the world of nature around them (verses 16-19). Some examples include thorns and thistles growing where once there were only fruit-bearing plants, and the ground requiring hard labor to yield a crop rather than a garden full of fruit for the picking. And through natural disasters, Satan has been able to continue insinuating his lie that God is not good, that He is not worthy of worship. When disasters come, it is invariably God who gets blamed, not the devil. Some people believe that God is punishing them for their misdemeanors.
Sadly, people like you and me make poor decisions or mistakes that negatively impact our lives and the lives of others. For example, when word of the Christmas truce reached the ears of the Allied high command, enraged generals issued orders to suppress it before peace broke out. There were even threats of punishment, though no disciplinary measures were ever taken.
There are those who would take a country to war rather than seek peace. Famine, pestilence and disease once considered to be disasters that were beyond human control, are in some cases now known to be the result of human decisions. Many millions of people die of curable diseases each year—a million from malaria; 1.75 million from tuberculosis; more than 5 million from acute lower-respiratory infections. Malnutrition from lack of food causes some 5 million child deaths each year. Trachoma, a curable form of blindness, is suffered by 70 million people globally. Our world truly is at war.
Individuals at War
In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul describes a personal war: "We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do." Paul discovered this principle of life, that "the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing" (Romans 7:14, 19). He's talking about a war for control of our minds: "I see another law at work in the members of my body," he says, "waging war against the law of my mind" (verse 23). There was a conflict taking place in the depths of his heart and mind, and if we're honest with ourselves, it's a conflict that takes place daily in us too. This war—this "great controversy"—takes place on three levels:
First, it is taking place on the larger universal scale; second, it is taking place on a global earthly scale; and third, it is going on in the mind and heart of every living human being who ever has lived or ever will live. This is the real war to end all wars. It has been waged since the beginning of time, and many people have fallen in its trenches.
But what is clear at this point is the result of this war: evil and its purposes are now plain for all creatures in the universe to see. Yet, though he was defeated at the cross 2,000 years ago, Satan hasn't surrendered.
His lust for death is still unsatisfied, and he "prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour" (1 Peter 5:8). So, then, can there be—will there ever be—an end to this war? The answer is a reassuring Yes.
Just as the birthday of Jesus Christ stopped a world at war in 1914, so the coming of Christ Himself the second time will end this greater war. His coming will bring in a new age of peace and a new heaven and a new earth filled with joy and love. For just as John in vision saw the beginning of the great controversy, so he also saw its end. God, he said, will create "a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away" (Revelation 21:1). And with them the war to end all wars will finally come to an end.
This article originally appeared in Signs of the Times magazine, May, 2010.