Tough Questions Teenagers Ask: Why Didn’t God Conquer Satan in the Garden?
The problem of evil—why God allows bad things to happen—is a question that doesn’t seem to go away, particularly in a fallen world. While I can’t say that I’ve found an answer that closes all further questioning, I have found a response within the biblical narrative that gives me new perspective, new hope, and new purpose amidst the questioning.
When teenagers ask why God allowed Satan to assert his sway over the cosmos, we can appreciate how their question situates the larger problem of evil within the context of a story within the Scriptures — and not just any story, one of the foundational narratives for understanding the message of the Bible.
In fact, Genesis 1-3 is where I’d want to start anyway if the question of evil came up in a discussion with a middle or high schooler, for a building can only be as strong as the foundation it’s built upon. And often, when approaching the topic of Satan or evil in general, our assumptions can be problematic.
Seeing creation as God’s work of subduing chaos and darkness
As we delve into the opening chapters of Genesis, we need to notice how the beginning of the Bible was always just that — a beginning, an initial step in a much larger project God was working within creation. From the beginning, there is a movement and a trajectory to God’s actions.
In Genesis 1:1, we’re told God creates the heavens and the earth. But in the very next sentence (verse 2), we’re told “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep.”
Throughout ancient near eastern cultures, disorder, darkness, and chaos were associated with powerful deities. So when “the Spirit of God” is seen “hovering over the face of the waters” in Genesis 1:3, the original audiences would see a scene set for an epic battle (as you’d find in other origin narratives like the Mesopotamian creation myth, Enuma Elish). It’s the gods of chaos and darkness versus the God of the Bible.
It would be like saying,”Mold and mildew covered the shower walls, but the maid hovered over the tiles.” Or to get the battle imagery better: “Voldemort and the Death Eaters were going about their work, but Dumbledore was hovering just around the corner.” There’s tension in the air. The circumstances present the question: Who will win out?
But instead of a cosmic battle, the God of the Bible merely speaks over a series of six days and disorder, darkness, and chaos are subdued, contained, or eradicated. There is no real battle or struggle. And on the seventh day, God rests.
When we talk about a struggle between good and evil, it’s all too easy to imagine a brutal battle between two mostly equal forces. But from the very outset, the Scriptures tell us a different story. Yes, there is chaos and darkness. Yes, there is a struggle. But it’s not between equals. It’s not even a contest. When God speaks, creation is subdued.
It’s important that we start here when we address the spiritual battle between God and Satan, Heaven and hell. Let’s not give the forces of evil more power than they really have on their own.
But this brings us back to the question at hand: Why then doesn’t God just conquer the serpent in the Garden if God really is so much more powerful?
As we keep reading through the creation narrative, we come to see something rather surprising: God doesn’t subdue the serpent for a lack of power, but because that’s what God uniquely created humans to do.
To see this, we need to pay attention to the language being used within the narrative’s ancient near eastern context.
Created to join in God’s work of subduing and ruling over all of creation
In days one through five, we see God alone at work subduing chaos, darkness and disorder. But on day 6, God says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26).
In the ancient near east, only kings were considered image-bearers of the gods. This was the basis of their right to rule. (Think of the Egyptian Pharaohs being the image of the sun god, Ra.)
But here in Genesis, shockingly all humans, both men and women, are given the status of image-bearer. We’re meant to see God establishing humanity as co-rulers and inviting us into God’s work of ordering creation against disorder and chaos.
It’s no surprise, then, that Genesis 1:26 continues: “And let them (humans) have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” Ruling and subduing is the natural work of a deity’s image-bearers. And notice, for the sake of the question at hand, that humanity is told to have dominion over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth — for this is the form Satan will take within the story.
The narrative wants us to see that the creation of humans made in the image of God is a climactic part of God’s response to chaos, disorder, and darkness within creation.
This project assumes a key part of the narrative that has often been obscured or misrepresented in many children’s Bibles and teachings about creation in children’s Sunday school: While Eden was a key part of God’s “very good” creation, it wasn’t the final product. It was meant to be improved upon and developed. It’s important to clear up this misunderstanding if we want to get at what the author is trying to tell us about God and the forces of evil.
Even in the time of the Eden project, everything was not as God intended it to ultimately become.
Creation was always meant to be improved upon and developed – even Eden itself. We even see God improving upon his creation in the narrative.
At a time when Adam still had a sinless relationship with God in the Eden garden — before the fall — God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” It is not good. This statement should stand out to us after the string of “it was good” clauses at the close of each day in chapter 1.
So God parades the animals before Adam — but still, there is nothing in creation (yet) that can make things better. So God creates Eve and Adam erupts into song.
But there is more.
We’ve already mentioned the chaos, darkness and disorder present in Genesis 1:2 that God subdued in days 1-5 of the story.
But also, assumed in the creation account in Genesis 2 is that just as there is the garden in Eden, there is also the rest of the earth that is not the garden of Eden. It’s some form of wilderness. It’s from the dust of this wilderness that God forms Adam and places him in the garden (Gen. 2:15). It’s also into the ‘not garden’ wilderness that Adam and Eve must return after their failure and fall (Gen. 3:23).
It’s worth stating again: The world presented in Genesis 1 and 2 wasn’t an ending. It was always moving somewhere under God’s direction. And that’s why God created humanity: to join in God’s ruling and subduing work within creation. They were to tend and keep the garden and be fruitful and multiply so that one day the Eden garden would come to cover the whole earth.
Also apparent from the story is that even before the failure and fall of Adam and Eve, not everything in creation is living in obedience to God. The serpent of the story is clearly in disobedience to the good for which it was intended.
As mentioned above, it isn’t a coincidence that Satan appears in the story in the form of a serpent — a part of the creation that Adam and Eve were tasked by God to subdue. As image-bearers they should have named the serpent’s rebellion, exposed his deception, and brought the serpent before God for judgment.
So now we are finally able to respond to the question at hand within the framework of the creation narratives:
Why did God allow the serpent to enter the garden? Because God wanted Adam and Eve to subdue the serpent, thereby joining in God’s ordering work of creation as image-bearers.
Why didn’t God just conquer the serpent right away? Because that’s what God uniquely created and authorized humanity to do within the story. Subduing rebellious angels was always meant to be humanity’s role. (And to anticipate where this all is going, it still is — quoting the apostle Paul, “Do you not know that we are to judge angels?” (1 Cor. 6:3).)
Presumably, within the narrative logic, even if Adam and Eve dealt with the serpent, eventually they would come across another aspect of creation needing subduing as they helped the Eden garden spread to cover the whole earth. After all, it’s clear from the Gospels and other parts of Scripture that Satan isn’t the only angel in rebellion to God’s way.
But Adam and Eve fail.
Adam and Eve’s great sin wasn’t just disobeying God’s command to not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil — it was also disobeying the command to subdue and have dominion over God’s creation.
And the consequences for creation were devastating. The product of chaos, disorder and darkness is suffering, pain, and death — therefore “as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men” (Rom. 5:12). In his abdication of humanity’s authority and rule as God’s image-bearers, Adam gave evil the power to subdue and exert its destructive rule over us and this creation.
But that’s why, as the story continues, it makes sense that God would one day have to become human to do what he created humanity alone to do: subdue evil within creation.
The question about the serpent leads us straight to the person and purpose of Jesus, the God-man.
God needed to become human to restore the Eden project and bring about the New Creation.
Within the fabric of creation, so the story goes, God designed humanity to play a unique role as image-bearers, co-rulers. We were meant to deal with all that remained within creation that was in rebellion against God’s order and abundance.
But, as the narrative continues from Noah to Abraham to Moses to David and on, it becomes beyond doubt that humanity is not up to the part we’ve been given to play in God’s world. Because of sin, we keep missing the mark and making things worse.
And so, not one to give up on his design, God becomes human to do what no other human could do. In Jesus, the God-man, humanity could finally fulfill our purpose to subdue evil within creation and launch a new creation — a new Eden Kingdom — where God’s order and abundance will one day come to fill all of creation.
And as citizens of Jesus’ kingdom, children of God, and new creations in Christ, this is the project we now participate in as the church. If you are in Christ, then you get to share in God’s subduing and ruling work in the world now. Again, quoting the apostle Paul, “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” (1 Cor. 6:2)
When God allows evil in our life (and note: this is often the real question behind the question about the serpent,) it’s not because God is powerless to act. Rather, it’s because God choses to work through humans to combat evil and its effects on this creation as ambassadors of God’s new creation.
Our youth have a part to play!
And because Jesus has given us his Spirit — the same Spirit that hovered over the waters of the deep in Genesis 1 — we are not powerless to resist. Rather, because of what Jesus has done, the apostle John can write, “you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 Jn. 2:14).
The same Word that brought the world into being and subdued the chaos and darkness that filled the earth, the same Word that become flesh in Jesus and darkness could not overcome, that same Word now abides in us — you, me, and the teenagers we love who belong to Jesus — and can speak through us into this world.
Sure, the serpent can bruise our heels. And sure we can still mess things up in the short-term by colluding with the forces of evil and failing to live into our “new self” in Christ. Like Adam, we can abdicate our authority. But, because of what Christ has done, the head of the serpent is now crushed.
And because of Jesus, we know how the story ends. One day, the creation story will come to its proper end and all things will be made new. One day, the Eden project that God began in Genesis will be the fullness of our reality as heaven and earth are made one as they were always intended to be.
And in that new Eden, there will no longer be any serpents to subdue as sin and evil will finally be subdued forever in our eternal reign with Christ.