Friday, June 09, 2006

Can God be Blamed for the Nazi Holocaust? Reflections on the "Problem of Evil" and Human Free Will

On the Lutheran Three Hierarchies blog, a piece by columnist Richard Cohen was posted:

Religious people can wrestle with the pope's remarks. What does it mean that God was silent? That He approved? That He liked what He saw? That He didn't give a damn? You tell me. And what does it mean that He could "tolerate all this"? That the Nazis were okay by Him? That even the murder of Catholic clergy was no cause for intercession? I am at a loss to explain this. I cannot believe in such a God.

This is a God who was away from his desk or something and did not notice the plumes of human ash reaching to the heavens themselves. Is that what the pope wants us to believe? No, I think it is something even worse: If God was silent, who could blame the church for being silent, too? Is that what Benedict is saying? If so, he is continuing the tradition of saying nothing.
Blogmaster "CPA" (words in blue) commented:

Thanks for the reference. Of course the flip side is, if there is no God, and we are not fallen, then we are simply natural and the Auschwitz that leads Richard Cohen to cry in despair is simply another, rather successful bit of natural selection, kind of like what happened when dingos in Australia wiped out native predators. And as I saw a NY Times op-ed say today, in the world of nature the word "cruel" doesn't fit.

I then contributed my $00.02 worth:

I would say the whole abominable mess of World War II and Hitler would and could have very easily been prevented if folks had listened to one man: Winston Churchill. But such is the folly of men that they want to believe that everything is fine (the Neville Chamberlain appeasement mentality).

Churchill warned all through the 30s of the German military build-up, but no one wanted to listen to him. At the same time, Malcolm Muggeridge was exposing Stalin's starving of ten million Ukrainians but no one wanted to listen to him, either.

It's as simple as that. Germany was disarmed after World War I; what happened a mere 15 years later when they started building tanks and fighter planes again? Nothing, of course.

C.S. Lewis estimated that four-fifths of evil is done by man to man. If something as terrible as WWII and the death camps and genocide (and the US's wiping out of 100,000 at a time in Hiroshima, and the dreadful bombings of Dresden and Tokyo, so that we aren't innocent either) could have been prevented by the simplest common sense, and listening to one clear-minded man, then where do we get off blaming God for this idiotic folly of mankind?

Can't Richard Cohen figure that out? Meanwhile, most Jews today completely buy into feminism and the accompanying abortion holocaust, and see no irony or pathetic tragedy in that at all.

God is no more responsible for abortion than He was for Auschwitz et al. It is the unchecked evil of men in circumstances which bring it out, and the good men who do nothing (Edmund Burke) which brings all this about. God wants us to do our duty of promoting justice and brotherhood in the world, not to miraculously intervene every time we screw things up yet again.

That part of the problem of evil is very simple to figure out, I think. The hard part is ascertaining why God, knowing how men would act, would allow free will anyway. In that sense, one might try to accuse God of cruelty, but that is where faith and acceptance of what God has revealed comes in, and acknowledgement of our own limitations in grasping these very deep mysteries.

Christians see God suffering on the cross, so we know that He is willing to go through what most of us have to endure: pain, suffering, humiliation, betrayal, etc.

* * * * *

Chris responded to some of my comments:

But Cohen also another point of view which is very much that of the Psalmist, 2 Esdras, etc., which is "suffering, fine, but why do YOUR people have to suffer the most, God?!" In other words, its a Jewish concern (although when we see how a Christian in North Korea or Pakistan or S. Sudan could feel the same way). And in a way, the Christian response makes it worse.

Briefly, the Jews (and Christians) have suffered more because "to whom much is given, much is required." God had revealed much more to them and they often rejected His word and will. So they had to undergo judgment. We know, e.g., that God literally used Nebuchednezzar as His agent of judgment for the wayward Jews.

I hasten to add that I wouldn't claim that God was using Hitler also in this way. Not at all! In that case, I can only appeal to my argument above: it all could have easily been prevented
by nipping it in the bud and making it impossible to begin, but people wanted to live in a fantasy world and let the real one go to hell. That wasn't a conspiracy against the Jews on the part of mankind; rather, it was sheer stupidity and shortsidedness about the man and party who hated Jews and wished to kill them (along with the Slavs, Gypsies, Catholics, handicapped, mentally-ill, left-wingers, Protestants, and many other categories: but the Jews were clearly most hated).

Imagine this scenario: SS man kills whole family of Jews. SS man repents, believes in Christ. On the judgment day, SS man goes to Heaven, Jewish family goes to Hell.

Judgment is based on a person's repentance and response to grace. If we start ruling out people who can be saved, because of severity of sin, then we will have an even bigger problem than we think we do now. The assumed fallacy of the above, also, is that it is presented in terms of a one-to-one correspondence (and surely you know this): the evil SS man persecutes the Jewish family but they end up in hell.

One can't look at just one aspect of the lives of these two parties, but the entirety. If the Jewish family is damned it will be because they deserved what they got, from God's perspective, and it won't make the SS guy's actions any more defensible, even if he truly repents in the end.

I also want to make it clear that my Catholic position holds that many may possibly be saved even if they truly have not heard or grasped the gospel, since God will judge them based on what they really know and how they have acted upon it. So I wouldn't for a second maintain that all Jews go to hell. It all comes down to individual cases. That is both biblical and patristic (and made very clear by St. Thomas Aquinas).

Getting back to your "point of view which is very much that of the Psalmist, 2 Esdras,":

The more primitive biblical view was that good people prosper and the evil have all kinds of problems. That is true at the very deepest level, and long-term, but not short-term, and it is seen to be utterly simplistic in terms of this life.

The more developed OT biblical perspective on suffering is that of Job: even the good people suffer (sometines even extraordinarily, "unfairly" so) and it is ultimately a mystery why, requiring us to trust that God is good and has a purpose, despite all. That's the whole point of that book (especially the end, where God keeps appealing to His omnipotence, omniscience, and providence and saying in effect: "who are you to question anything about Me? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?" Etc., etc.

I know a lot of Christians think that me being bothered by this is just PC thinking, or lack of awareness of sin, etc., but I don't think so. The Bible is very insistent that God identifies with and supports the persecuted over their persecutors.

Again, in very general terms, this is true, yet we must incorporate the more advanced, "mysterious" understanding of suffering as seen in Job, Isaiah 53 and many NT passages, which we Catholics readily apply to the spiritual fruitfulness of penance for the sake of souls (just as prayer and charity do the same good). Suffering has a deep purpose. When we suffer we can apply that to other souls.

The arrogant and bullying will lose on that day, and the humble and persecuted will win. But it seems sometimes the other way around.

I think we all have to continually remind ourselves that God only promises to make things totally right by including the next life into the equation. This world can never be "right" or "normal" because it is a fallen world. All we can do is individually follow God and hope for the best, in temporal terms. We're just pilgrims. But we can have joy and peace despite all. That is promised.

So, I don't know how to resolve this, but I just trust the God is God, and He will do what is right and best, and that on judgment day, all the oppressors will be paid back in full, and all the oppressed comforted and all who believe in Christ will be forgiven their sins, and where the two seem to contradict, God will devise the right and proper solution.

That's what it all comes down to. One must trust God. It's difficult at times - very difficult - but we have to fall back on the cross and what that revealed about God's love and willingness to identify with our emptiness and pain (though not our sin).

Great discussion! Thanks.

* * * * *

I wanted to clarify that the Catholic position is (and always has been) that if a person knows Christianity to be true, and KNOWS Jesus to be Lord and Savior and Messiah and rejects it and Him as such, then they cannot be saved.

The only way would be to be ignorant or what we might call "psychologically incapable" to receive Christianity, in which case God would consider the person's whole circumstances and their life to determine if they are saved or not.

So to use the Jews in Nazi Germany scenario: if the only "Christians" a Jewish person saw were a bunch of Nazi youth or sympathizers of those in silent (though reluctant) compliance with Nazi views and policies, then how likely would it be that they would be impressed by Christianity? They would tend to identify it with the devil and their enemies. I believe that God understands this and takes it into consideration, because they are rejecting a caricature or distortion of Christianity, not the real thing (which they may have never truly seen).

On the other hand, if they were rescued by priests or nun and hidden in a monastery, or saved by the many brave Protestant dissenters, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or the Ten Boom family, then they would see true Christianity in action, and might actually be able to receive or at least respect Christianity. The chief rabbi of Rome converted to Christianity (Catholicism in his case) precisely because of what he saw the Catholic Church doing.

* * * * *

"Blind Squirrel," a professional historian, responded on my cross-posted comment on Amy Welborn's excellent blog:

I often assign a scenario like this, as part of an exercise in counterfactual history: What if France (and, maybe, Britain) had taken the last chance to stop Hitler without major bloodshed - the Rhineland occupation of 1936 - and toppled him as a result? (At this stage, remember, by the gruesome calculus of the era he could be considered a comparative humanitarian among European leaders - far fewer killings to his credit than Mussolini, probably fewer again than Dollfuss, not even to be mentioned in the same breath with Stalin.) What would have replaced him? Probably a KPD government. And how would the history books read today? That the Allies, acting out of a paranoid fear of Germany, recklessly overturned a government that, its worrisome rhetoric aside, was less murderous than most; in so doing destroyed the last realistic hope of preventing the westward march of Communism; and delivered Western Europe over to the tender mercies of the Soviet colossus in the mid-1930s?

That's the dreadful thing about pre-emption. If it's successful, you'll never know whether the evil to be prevented would actually have happened and hence whether the cure was not worse than the disease.

I replied:

Very interesting (and your historical tidbits of sad compliance are fascinating, albeit immensely disturbing). Of course, in retrospect, it would have been the right thing to do, whatever the naysayers say. And that is often the problem of people not doing what they should do, in the final analysis, isn't it? "What will others think?"

Half the things I've done in my life (and most of the best, in my opinion) were in the teeth of some loved-one's objections [not my wife!]. I would never have become a Catholic or a writer or apologist, etc. I wouldn't have been in Operation Rescue (a mild form of conscientious protest against an unjust society and mass murder, as it were). I wouldn't have even converted to evangelical Christianity in 1977 (my upbringing was nominal Methodist).

If we're so worried about mere social opinion and what our own circle will think of us, is it any wonder that folks are so easily cowed into doing the will of dictators and abortion providers, no matter how outrageous?

I think what could have been said to those who would have frowned upon an early shut-down of Hitler is that there was no particularly compelling reason to think that the man didn't mean to do exactly as he had stated and had written in Mein Kampf (one might cite analogous behavior of the Communists who set out and did pretty much what Marx and - especially - Lenin predicted, and even more).

Hitler was an extremely serious guy. I just saw a clip a few nights ago of his first speech as Chancellor in 1933. I think anyone could readily see that he meant business. Jews in Germany were certainly well aware of that early on. Why wasn't anyone else? It's the typical latent European anti-Semitism again, I suppose. Combine this with the history of German / Prussian militarism and aggression and the collection of misfits and moral monsters that Hitler was collecting in his government and "it didn't take a rocket scientist" to see what was coming, no?

* * * * *

"Blind Squirrel" then posted more of his fascinating facts about Churchill and other topics, and I wrote:

The complete truth is again interesting, as always!

I still say, however (getting back to the larger subject of God and evil), that World War II and all of its hideous fruit is squarely the fault of human beings, not God. It's ridiculous for us to make a royal mess of things and then when the chickens come home to roost, we start whining and moaning about "why did God allow this?" (and then prepare to make the same stupid mistakes all over again - learning absolutely nothing from history).

Indeed, it is an extremely serious and troubling philosophical question: why God allows the human free will that He knew would continually fail and cause great suffering and misery. But that's different from directly blaming God for "doing nothing," etc., during the worst times of our butchering each other.

I think the free will defense provides a fairly adequate answer, but there is always a gap left, making it difficult to understand why God allowed a thing which has entailed so much pain and suffering.

We can accept it in faith, humbly acknowledging our limitations and God's goodness, but those without faith will understandably struggle quite a bit with it and feel a perplexity that only faith, I think, is able to overcome.


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