God and the Holocaust: Is there an answer?
What is God?
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First, let’s make sure we have the question. We don’t have to go into any details about the Holocaust as they are already well known. It was a time of incredible evil - evil that almost defies belief. Today, even those who want to know about it and have seen the actual photographs or the live footage, have trouble fully understanding the scope of what actually happened. It is just too much for the mind and the emotions to assimilate. The numbers, going from the thousands to the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands to the millions, become so large that they approach meaninglessness.
But it happened. Six million or so Jews perished, in addition to countless others. This, of course, is aside from the tens of millions who died in the rest of the war. All-in-all, it boils down to around 50 million deaths that were brought about by the direct hand of human beings. The question is - where was God when all this was going on? Granted we can excuse God from being a direct cause of these deaths, but we have to question why God did not intervene to stop the killing. This is the stark and naked question: why didn’t God stop the Holocaust?
There are several different approaches to attempt to deal with this question. They range from what we can call respectively: classic Orthodox, non-interventionist, indifferent, and non-existent. Before beginning to analyze these positions, it is worth pointing out the obvious observation that nobody really knows the answer. Any attempt at an answer is nothing more than a guess based on some combination of faith, tradition, emotion, and logic. Dealing with the theological implications of the Holocaust is a minefield at best and a bottomless pit at worst. Let us enter the minefield.
As a preamble, we can clarify the problem by identifying conditions concerning God and reality that the Holocaust exposed as mutually exclusive. The first is that God is all good. This does not mean partially good, or mostly good, or almost entirely good, but all good. There is no room or anything evil or imperfect in God’s goodness. The second is that God is omnipotent. God can do anything He chooses to creation, including taking away human free will. This is also an absolute condition, not some halfway compromise. Either God is omnipotent or God is not omnipotent. The third condition concerns the world and not God, at least directly. This condition is that evil exists in the world, however it may be defined. The Holocaust involved a great deal of evil. This last condition is difficult if not impossible to deny.
The problem is putting all three of these conditions together in the same reality. Any two of them can fit together with no problem, even evil with either omnipotence or all-goodness. The problem is when we try to combine the two conditions concerning God with the reality of evil. How could an omnipotent and all-good God allow for such evil? It doesn’t mean that God caused the evil directly, but that God allowed the evil to take place and did nothing to prevent it. If we took away either omnipotence or all-goodness (or both) the problem would be solved. God either would have liked to prevent the evil but couldn’t, or could have prevented the evil but didn’t. As Archibald MacLeish put it in his play ‘J.B.’, which is a modern version of the story of Job: ‘If God is God He is not good, if God is good He is not God’. This is the problem in a nutshell.
The classic Orthodox position accepts the traditional conditions about God without question. God is both omnipotent and all-good. What it tampers with is the reality of evil. In one of several ways, it attempts to defend God’s goodness by justifying the apparent evil. Among the ways to do this is the claim that the victims were guilty either individually or collectively. Another way is to say that they were unwitting and perhaps unwilling sacrifices that were needed for some divine plan. A third way is to resort to otherworldly compensations such as the world to come or previous incarnations. A fourth way, which is probably the most popular, is to say that the temporary evil resulted in an ultimate good. Either way, the evil was in some way only a passing thing that was worth the ultimate benefit.
Needless to say, to many, these answers fall on deaf ears. They just cannot see how the death of six million Jews can be justified for any cause whatsoever. While there is no way of absolutely disproving the classic Orthodox approach, there is no denying that it requires a great deal of buying into. Consequently, it is not surprising that many Orthodox Jews dropped their faith either partially or completely as a result of what they experienced or witnessed.
The second approach is non-omnipotence. This approach says that God’s omnipotence was a false belief to begin with that was built around a naïve understanding of what God actually is. This approach sees God as nothing more than a Creator who remained a concept of ultimate goodness in the world but was helpless to do anything about the preponderance of evil. This is simply the way things are – God is that subtle but powerful source of good in the human mind that can do no more than human beings themselves to enable that goodness to come to be. God is restricted to the whims and the morality of humanity, and to the unforgiving laws of nature that simply act regardless of the consequences. For obvious reasons, it is difficult to truly worship and revere such an image of God. Consequently, most of those who have maintained such a position have largely dropped belief in anything resembling the Biblical or Jewish image of God.
The third approach is even more radical than the second approach. While possibly maintaining a belief in God’s omnipotence, it drops the belief in God’s all-goodness. God, according to this view, could just as easily be indifferent or cruel. According to the view, there is no reason whatsoever, either historical or experiential, to maintain belief in God’s all-goodness. God simply lets the world run as it does, without any regard to whether or not it is following some preconceived plan of ultimate goodness.
The drastic consequences of such a belief are obvious – is this a god that one can truly revere? Who would want to worship a god that is indifferent to human suffering, and who just lets terrible things happen even though it would take nothing more than a whisk of His divine hand to put a stop to them? If the choice has to be made to drop either the ‘good’ out of God or the ‘God’ out of good, most people would probably take the latter over the former.
The fourth approach is straight atheism. In a sense this is the easiest answer to Holocaust-like questions. It simply tells it like it is – people do awful things to each other and we should not blame a non-existent God for human problems. Modern atheism, which has no supernatural Creator or Guide, was not created to solve the theological problems of the Holocaust. It was created simply because there was no longer a need for a supernatural god to explain the workings of the world. It happens that it does solve dilemmas like the Holocaust by eliminating a deity altogether and attributing everything to the choices of human beings. As a bonus, it also gets God off the hook for natural disasters such as earthquakes or plagues. They are simply acts of nature with no divine agenda behind them.
None of these approaches are particularly compelling to the person who really wants an answer. The first lives and dies with faith. If one lacks the faith, the answer is empty. The second leaves one wondering if God is anything more than wishful thinking. The third creates a God that is almost impossible to respect. The fourth is honest and brutally straightforward, but devoid of any ultimate hope. Is there another possibility?
A possible alternative is to assume that God’s omnipotence is manifested through allowing human beings the complete freedom to steer their own course. God may not want things to go a certain way, but nevertheless allows them go that way because that is the nature of God’s absolute power. It is the power to let things develop without intervening. We have seen indications of this image of God as far back as certain early stages of the Bible. The non-interventionist God may not seem very Biblical, and it certainly may not be the image that people would hope for, but it may be a fact of life. Non-intervention means that God grants us the power to play God with our world. We may not really want such a power, and we may not be worthy to wield such a power, but we are stuck with it for better or worse. The Holocaust, according to this outlook, was an extreme example of what happens when things get too far away from the path that God wants. God does nothing to change the course of events other than to remain as a source of spiritual anguish deep within the human conscience.
Perceiving the Image
Going straight to this final image of a Holocaust-surviving God, how are we supposed to perceive it? First off, we have no right to expect this image of God to intervene to save the day for us in some miraculous manner. Whether God used to do these sorts of things in Biblical times is another question, but it does not seem to have happened during the Holocaust. So what does God do to fill His time if He is not intervening in worldly affairs and righting all the wrongs of the world? Perhaps simply maintaining existence is enough to keep Him busy. That seems to be the 20th century role that is reserved for God, so why shouldn’t we just allow God to be God and not expect anything more out of the poor Guy? God is still all-good; He just refuses to micromanage any longer.
Can one pray to this image of God? Can one revere it or worship it? If one sees prayer as a means of making concrete changes in the world by means of divine intervention, it would seem that this image is going to lead to nothing but disappointment. However, if personal prayer harbors no such expectations, then the doors are wide open. To pray to this image of God would be to direct the mind and the soul to the ultimate mystery that lies behind the veneer of physicality that covers so much of contemporary life. Prayer would no longer fit into the conventional religious sense of the term but would be more of a spiritual awakening to the almost hidden depth of wonder that underlies the scientifically predictable veneer.
Even something as despicable as evil can somehow be encompassed within the domain of God’s reality. God does not intervene; God enables things to be. To pray to this God is to pray to ourselves that we be worthy of what God wants from us. To praise and to revere this God is to acknowledge the gift of being allowed the opportunity to experience God’s reality and to place one’s course of life in the direction that God favors but does not tilt the balance towards. To worship this God is to be the greatest person one can be, for that is the only way one can approach God. God may no longer intervene, but God is still there.
There is no question that many people will not be satisfied with a non-interventionist image of God. Putting aside all other questions, we still have to ask how this image fits in with the Bible, which has God intervening right and left. Is this image ultimately a rejection of the Bible?
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