Auschwitz: God on Trial


(Merry Christmas)

While I haven’t read Elie Wiesel’s The Trial of God, I have read his Night. I found Night to be one of the most ghastly things I’ve ever read, due to its simple descriptions and basis in the reality of the Holocaust. In Night, Elie Wiesel describes the hanging of a child in Auschwitz. In A History of God, Karen Armstrong describes the episode thus:

It took the child half an hour to die, while the prisoners were forced to look him in the face. The same man asked again: “Where is God now?” And Wiesel heard a voice within him make this answer: “Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows.”

Dostoevsky had said that the death of a single child could make God unacceptable, but even he, no stranger to inhumanity, had not imagine the death of a child in such circumstances. The horror of Auschwitz is a stark challenge to many of the more conventional ideas of God. The remote God of the philosophers, lost in transcendent apatheia, becomes intolerable. Many Jews can no longer subscribe to the biblical idea of God who manifests himself in history, who, they say with Wiesel, died in Auschwitz. The idea of a personal God, like one of us writ large, is fraught with difficulty. If this God is omnipotent, he could have prevented the Holocaust. If he was unable to stop in, he is impotent and useless; if he could have stopped it and chose not to, he is a monster. Jews are no the only people who believe that the Holocaust put an end to conventional theology.

These same struggles have been a prominent thread in theology throughout its history. The ‘problem of evil’ is called theodicy. How do we reconcile the existence of suffering and of evil (whether or not they are synonymous) with the existence of God? How can there be wars, terrorism or plagues such as AIDS and an all-loving, all-powerful God? If God allows free will, or created a universe in which Satan exists, does not that suffering in some way emanate from God? From that beacon of respectability, Wikipedia, comes this:

Some have argued that the predetermined goal of theodicy (that of justifying the existence of God with the existence of evil) tarnishes any aspirations it might have to be a serious philosophical discipline, because an intellectual pursuit having a predefined goal and preassumed conclusions cannot be deemed in any reasonable way to be methodical, scientific, or rational.

That’s exactly the problem with theodicy. Most of the numbingly thick and tedious volumes written on the subject begin with two observations and try to reconcile them: a) there is a God, and b) there is evil. The most reasonable, parsimonious answer to the existence of suffering may be that God, as we have thought we knew Him, does not exist. As long as that answer is simply not an option on the table, the study of theodicy is incomplete.

Finally, Armstrong summarizes another episode related by Elie Wiesel:

Yet it is also true that even in Auschwitz some Jews continued to study the Talmud and observe the traditional festivals, not because they hoped that God would rescue them but because it made sense. There is a story that one day in Auschwitz, a group of Jews put God on trial. They charge him with cruelty and betrayal. Like Job they found no consolation in the usual answers to the problem of evil and suffering in the midst of this current obscenity. They could find no excuse for God, no extenuating circumstances, so they found him guilty and, presumably, worthy of death. The Rabbi pronounced the verdict. Then he looked up and said that the trial was over: it was time for the evening prayer.

God is dead. To whom do we pray?

2 Responses to Auschwitz: God on Trial

  1. JH says:

    re: Prayer post-god

    Non-theists who hail from religions with a tradition of rote prayer (which would include nearly every monotheistic type of faith other than Evangelicalism) can continue to pray post-god, because prayer for them is primarily an expression of habit and continuity; it binds them to their community, past present and future. Addressing God is not really the point for them.

    For us, prayer is talking to God in a very immediate, conversational way. So if you don’t believe in God, prayer is pointless, from an Evangelical perspective. It will likely always feel cheesy to you. It always has to me, at least…even when I did believe in God.

  2. Tony Sidaway says:

    Yesterday the BBC showed a play by Frank Cottrell Boyce about such a trial. It was very highly praised by all reviewers, for writing, direction and cast.–a-review-of-god-on-trial.html

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