During the 1970’s I made friends with some Jewish socialists who invited me along to a meeting of Young Mapam, a socialist Zionist group. The speaker was a man called Hyam Maccoby who gave a talk on Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary leader against the Romans. We pitched into the discussion afterwards and some members of the group then invited us along to another meeting where they were going to read pieces of literature which meant something to them.
One of the readings was from a book by Elie Wiesel called ‘Night’ about his experiences in Auschwitz. After the reading someone asked us, ‘Where was God when the Six Million were killed?’ I really did not know what to say and so I went away to read ‘Night’ for myself and think through the issues involved.
My first reaction after reading ‘Night’ was, ‘How can I who was born when these events were already history, who have no trace of Jewish blood in my veins, presume to write about an experience so terrible, so far removed from my own experience of life, and so painful to the Jewish people?’ The answer which came to me was clear: ‘If you have no answer to the questions raised by this book, how can you claim that Jesus is the answer?’
The most eloquent statement of this despair is to be found in ‘Night’ when the author as a child views Birkenau, the reception centre for Auschwitz, for the first time:
‘Flames were leaping from a ditch, gigantic flames. They were burning something. A lorry drew up at the pit and delivered its load – little children. Babies! Yes, I saw it – saw it with my own eyes…those little children in the flames. (Is it surprising that I could not sleep after that? Sleep had fled from my eyes).
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget those things even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.’ (1)
So where was God? When such appalling evils take place, is it still possible to believe in the concept of a just God, of a God who loves and cares about humanity? Facing this question is more than just an academic exercise. Cruel dictatorships, concentration camps, torture and utter wickedness still hold sway in many parts of the earth and the Bible warns that in the last days evil men will grow worse and worse and that the whole world will ultimately come under the power of one known as the Beast or the Anti-Messiah (antichrist) of whom Hitler was a major forerunner.
Who was responsible?
The first question which must be asked is ‘Who was responsible for creating the death camps and the Nazi terror – God or man?’ In ‘Night’ Elie Wiesel describes the pious Jews in the camp holding services to worship God on Jewish holy days. This causes him to rage against God for allowing these death camps to exist. (As a point of information Elie Wiesel is a practising Orthodox Jew today, so the view expressed here represents his reaction as a child to the horrors he was witnessing, not the one which he holds now).
‘Thousands of voices repeated the benediction; thousands of men prostrated themselves like trees before a tempest.
Why, but why should I bless Him? In every fibre I rebelled. Because He had thousands of children burned in His pits? Because He kept the crematoria working night and day, on Sundays and feast days? Because He in His great might had created Auschwitz, Birkenau, Buna and so many factories of death?’ (2)
This is a very understandable reaction to the enormous suffering of the camps. God is supposed to be in control of the universe; one finds oneself the victim of unbelievable wickedness and cruelty. God appears to be doing nothing about it; therefore God is responsible for the evil or just indifferent and powerless.
However God did not create Auschwitz or any factories of death. People did, people who were motivated by Nazism, an ideology which expressed in its ideas and practice a rebellion against God on a hitherto unknown scale in human history. God did not create Auschwitz; He created human beings perfect, to live in peace and harmony with God and each other. However since the Fall (Genesis 3) sin has reigned over the human race and the hostile power of Satan has influenced humanity to rebel against God and disobey His commandments. We have come a long way from Cain taking Abel into the field to murder him to the concentration camps and the frightful weapons of destruction of our time. Nevertheless the principle remains the same and the problem remains the same – the sin in the heart of human beings. As the Bible says:
‘The heart of man is deceitful above all things and desperately corrupt’ Jeremiah 17.9.
‘For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and they defile a man’ Mark 7.21-2.
‘All men, both Jews and Gentiles are under the power of sin, as it is written: None is righteous, no, not one; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one. Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they know not’ Romans 3.9-12, 15-17.
20th Century history testifies absolutely to this analysis of the human condition. It is significant that such an extreme manifestation of the evil in the human heart took place in a century which began with many people putting their trust in the innate goodness of humanity, the perfectibility of human nature and the coming of a Golden Age of peace, prosperity and tolerance through advances in science, education and politics. What is more it took place in a country whose contribution to European culture was enormous and which had produced some of the leading 19th Century writers and philosophers, many of whom rejected God and placed their trust in our ability to save ourselves through our own efforts. If anything the Nazi Holocaust should make us lose faith in this kind of optimistic humanism rather than the God of the Bible. This is the implication of the foreword to ‘Night’ in which the French writer, Francois Mauriac writes about trainloads of Jewish children he saw being taken away from Paris during the Nazi occupation:
‘The dream which western man conceived in the 18th Century, whose dawn he thought he saw in 1789 (the French Revolution), and which until August 2nd 1914 (the outbreak of the first world war), had grown stronger with the progress of enlightenment and the discoveries of science – this dream finally vanished from me before those trainloads of little children.’ (3)
The Nazis and God
Those who blame God for the Nazi Holocaust should note that the roots of the Nazi ideology lay in a definite rejection, indeed a bitter hatred of not just Judaism, but the God of the Bible and authentic Christianity. In this connection it is interesting to note the following thoughts written by Friedrich Nietzsche, the German philosopher who first proclaimed that ‘God is dead.’
(Speaking of the Christian concept of God) ‘The God of the great majority, the democrat among gods (NB Nietzsche loathed democracy), has nonetheless not become a proud pagan god; he has remained the god of the nook, the god of all dark corners and places, of all the unhealthy quarters throughout the world.’ (5)
‘What is good? – All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is bad? All that proceeds from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases, that resistance is overcome. Not contentment, but more power; not peace at all, but war; not virtue, but proficiency. The weak and ill constituted shall perish; the first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so. What is more harmful than any vice? Active sympathy for the weak and ill constituted: Christianity.’ (6)
‘Christianity is called the religion of pity. Pity stands in the antithesis to the tonic emotions which enhance the energy of the feeling of life: it has a depressive effect. Pity on the whole thwarts the law of evolution, which is the law of selection. It preserves what is ripe for destruction: it defends life’s disinherited and condemned.’ (7)
This philosophy of 19th century German atheism clearly has a spiritual link to Nazi ideology. One wonders what Nietzsche would have thought of the strong, powerful, pitiless ones, the SS, ‘selecting’ the fittest specimens as they ran past them naked – the strong to be worked to death in concentration camps, the weak and ‘ill-constituted’ to be taken away to the gas chambers. What does the modern world need, hard, pitiless anti-Christian men and women, or those who will follow the one Nietzsche despises so much? He said:
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God’ (Jesus speaking in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5.3-9).
There was no doubt what kind of people Hitler wanted. He said ‘Antiquity was better than modern times because it did not know Christianity and syphilis.’ His main reasons for rejecting Christianity were as follows:
- It was the religion which sided with everything weak and low.
- It was purely Jewish and Oriental in origin. ‘Christians bend their backs to the sound of church bells and crawl to the cross of a foreign God”.
- The religion began 2000 years ago among sick and despairing men who had lost their faith in life.
- Christian ideas of forgiveness of sin, resurrection and salvation were just nonsense.
- The Christian idea of mercy was dangerous. One must never extend mercy to an enemy. ‘Mercy is an un-German concept.’
- Christian love was harmful. Love paralyses.
- The Christian idea of equality of all human beings before God meant that the inferior, the ill, the crippled, the criminal and the weak were protected.’ (8)
The Nazis may have marched into battle with ‘Gott mit uns’ (God with us) as their motto, but their god was a pagan antichrist god, and they followed a false messiah, Adolf Hitler, and bowed down before idols of power, physical force and the dream of world domination by the Teutonic Master Race. Is it surprising that the fruit of this demonic ideology was the nightmare of destruction and slaughter which followed in their wake?
- Throw out the Old Testament – it is a Jewish book. Also throw out parts of the New Testament.
- Christ must be regarded not as Jewish, but as a kind of Nordic martyr put to death by the Jews, a kind of warrior who by his death saved the world from Jewish domination.
- Adolph Hitler is the new Messiah sent to earth to rescue the world from the Jews.
- The swastika replaces the cross as the symbol of German Christianity.
- German land, German blood, German soul, German art – these four things must become the most sacred things of all to the German Christian. (9)
In effect the Nazis were replacing Christianity with a new paganism which drew its strength from Wagner’s music and the Nordic myths of pre-Christian times. One of the prime movers in this direction was Alfred Rosenburg to whom Hitler awarded the National Prize, Germany’s version of the Nobel Prize, in 1937. Rosenburg wanted a return to the old Teutonic religion of fire and sword. There was even a hymn for the new German Faith Movement:
‘The time of the Cross has gone now,
The Sun Wheel shall arise,
And so, with God, we shall be free at last
And give our people their honour back.’ (10)
So where was God?
A Jewish novel, ‘The Last of the Just’ by Andre Schwartz-Bart traces Jewish suffering through many generations and concludes in the time of the Holocaust. There is a very moving scene when a crowd of worshipping Jews leaves a synagogue and is confronted by Nazi troops in the courtyard:
‘Ernie had a staggering intuition – that God was hovering above the synagogue courtyard, vigilant and ready to intervene. Ernie felt that God was there, so close that with a little boldness he might have touched him. ‘Stop! Don’t touch my people!’ he murmured as if the divine voice had found expression in his own frail throat.’ (11)
In the novel there is a momentary deliverance on that occasion, however the terrible cycle of death and destruction brought about by the Nazis continued with the massacre of six million Jews and the deaths of millions of Gentiles on the battlefronts and in the concentration camps. Was God silent and indifferent while all this was going on?
God was neither silent nor indifferent, but He was watching and weeping over the wickedness of humanity and the suffering of the people, especially the Jewish people. However because He has given us free will, the consequence of the wrong choice made by the German people was played out in the events which followed. The final defeat of the Nazis showed God’s ultimate judgment on that wicked political system.
While God was not silent or indifferent unfortunately much of the church was. There were brave souls, like the Ten Boom family in Holland, who sacrificed themselves to rescue Jews from the Nazis. But for the most part the church failed to speak out and not surprisingly many Jewish people saw ‘Christians’ as the enemy. In ‘The Last of the Just’ Ernie Levy, the lead character, marries Golda the night before they are to be taken away to a concentration camp. Their conversation turns to Jesus:
‘Oh Ernie,’ Golda said, ‘you know them. Tell me why do the Christians hate us the way they do? They seem so nice when I can look at them without my star.’
Ernie put his arm round her shoulder solemnly. ‘It’s very mysterious,’ he murmured in Yiddish. ‘They don’t exactly know why themselves. I’ve been in their churches and I’ve read their gospel. Do you know who the Christ was? A simple Jew like your father. A kind of Hassid.’
‘No, no believe me, and I’ll bet they’d have got along fine, the two of them, because he was really a good Jew, you know sort of like the Baal Shem Tov (12) – a merciful man and gentle. The Christians say they love him, but I think they hate him without knowing it. So they take the cross by one end and make a sword out of it and strike us with it! You understand Golda,’ he cried out suddenly strangely excited, ‘they take the cross and they turn it around, they turn it around, my God…’ (13)
Jesus was much more than ‘a simple Jew’ but the fact that He was a Jew is one which is totally obvious from the New Testament. Those who call themselves Christians and yet hate the Jews need to repent of anti-Semitism, and determine to stand by Jewish people when they suffer persecution, recognising that the root of anti-Semitism is human hostility to God. Rabbi David Panitz has pointed out in this connection that ‘the need for atonement through admission of the facts of history is an established Hebraic and Christian doctrine. Until you admit you have been wrong, you cannot begin a reconstruction of your life.’
The professing Christian church has an enormous burden of guilt in relation to the Jewish people. Although Nazi philosophy was pagan and anti-Christian, the seeds of anti-Semitism reaped by the Nazis were sown by the churches in their denunciations of the Jews. At the same time we have to say that the real Jesus is entirely different from the cruel caricature who takes the cross to beat the Jewish people with. In Ernie Levy’s conversation with Golda, he goes on to say, ‘Poor Jesus, if he came back to the earth and saw that the pagans had made a sword out of him and used it against his sisters and brothers, he’d be sad, he’d grieve forever. And maybe he does see it.’ (14)
1. Elie Wiesel ‘Night’ page 44-5. Penguin version.
2. Elie Wiesel ‘Night’ page 78
3. Foreword to ‘Night’ page 7-8
4. Nietzsche ‘The Antichrist’ Penguin version page 2
5. ‘The Antichrist’ page 7
6. ‘The Antichrist’ page 17
7. ‘The Antichrist’ page 19
8. ‘Hitler and Nazism’ by Louis L Snyder page 87
9. ‘Hitler and Nazism’ page 90
10. ‘Hitler and Nazism’ page 91
11. ‘The Last of the Just’ by Andre Schwartz Bart page 159
12. Baal Shem Tov – ‘Master of the Good Name’, the title given to Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760), the founder of the Hassidic movement.
13. ‘The Last of the Just’ by Andre Schwartz Bart page 323-4
14. ‘The Last of the Just’ by Andre Schwartz Bart page 324