Did God Die In The Holocaust?

In the 1930s and 40s, a great many Jews in Europe would have exercised their free will in the direction of Adolf Hitler’s head by putting a bullet in it, but God (if He exists) did not give a single Jew in Germany the chance to exercise free will in this manner.

By contrast, God gave Hitler not only free will but wide-ranging formal powers to exercise it. God did not restrain Hitler’s free will at all. In the eyes of God, it appears that the free will of Hitler, and his ability to maximize it, was of greater value to Him than:

  • the free will of six million Jews and their collective ability to maximize it; and
  • saving those same six million Jews from mass murder.

In other words, above all things in God’s hierarchy of values in the 1930s and 40s was this: preserving Hitler’s free will.

There are two contending conclusions to draw from this fact (one atheist; one theist). First, the atheist one:

  • The Holocaust renders the idea of a good and all-powerful God’s existence absurd, even obscene; therefore, God (as conventionally conceived) certainly does not exist.

Second is the theist one: 

  • God, for reasons we cannot fathom, has set up the world to run contingently (that is, on rolls of the atomic dice) and values human free will in such contingent circumstances more highly than all other things. 

Who do I give the intellectual “win” to here: the atheist’s conclusion or the theist’s conclusion?

The atheist’s.

The theist’s conclusion, after all,  sags. Even the Bible doesn’t appear to support it. There are numerous biblical passages insisting that God sometimes does restrain free will. The hardening of Pharoah’s heart in the Book of Exodus is an obvious example. The protecting of Jesus from his opponents until God’s timing for Jesus’ crucifixion could be fulfilled is another. Also, in the first chapter of the Book of Job, Satan is restrained from hurting Job until God gives Satan the okay.

The biblical God, in other words, does not let beings with free will do whatever they want, whenever they want. He sometimes intervenes, disrupting their free will, especially when He wants some particular result to come to pass.

In the case of the Holocaust, therefore, if God exists one is driven to conclude that, at least in the 1930s and 40s, God became monstrous and wicked, akin to the people in Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan who, on witnessing unjust suffering, passed by on the other side of the road.

But thinking of God in this manner seems intolerable and depressing. Yet how does one escape it (on theist terms that retain both God’s goodness and power)?

There appears to be only two logically possible theist alternatives for explaining the Holocaust remaining, but they are both horrifying: one is that the Jews had it coming to them; the second is that God permitted the Holocaust because it was necessary for Him to bring about a higher good.

Again, these are grotesque and ridiculous proposals, yet they seem to exhaust the list of theist explanations.

How, therefore, does one pray after the Holocaust? How does one go on believing in God? The Holocaust seems to have cornered and killed God. It is a serious–perhaps even insurmountable–intellectual and moral problem for continued belief in God’s existence (or ought to be).

So why don’t educated believers Jacob-wrestle with this more than they do, and why don’t priests, imams, and ministers raise the issue with their congregations?

A good explanation, it seems to me, is a Nietzschean one: it doesn’t accord with the will to power of the religious. God is a useful and simplifying fiction for assisting theists in their mastery of the fluid (becoming) world. Therefore, when confronting the question of God’s existence in light of the Holocaust, one or more of the following must be resorted to by theists:

  • ignorance;
  • silence;
  • compartmentalization;
  • cognitive dissonance;
  • apologetic rationalizing;
  • Holocaust denial (it “didn’t happen” or wasn’t as bad as reported);
  • moral disapproval (the very question is “blasphemous”).

Ignorance is obviously the simplest solution: put the Holocaust down Orwell’s memory hole; don’t talk about it. Given time, people will not even think to ask the question. They might not even come to know the history of the Holocaust, so that solves the problem as well. Better to focus on scenic mountains views and butterflies when talking about God; it’s simply too horrible to think about God in light of the Holocaust, so let’s not.

But theists should think about it, for (at minimum) it would make them conscious of their own will to power; how not talking about the Holocaust serves their belief project. And it would guide them (to echo Nietzsche) to the genealogy of their morals.

But maybe they really don’t want to know these things.

What about atheists? Can the Holocaust lead them to self-reflection on their will to power and genealogy of morals as well? I think it can, for the Holocaust brings the atheist up against the issue of humanism versus nihilism with questions like these:

  • Once God is dead, should will to power nihilism be embraced or resisted? If you say “resisted,” on what basis?
  • If the truth of the world is atoms in flux and survival of the fittest, whence equality and the dignity and value of individual humans, especially when they are in states of extreme weakness and vulnerability?
  • How might atheism become a useful and simplifying fiction for assisting bad people in their mastery of the fluid (becoming) world? How does one counter this use of atheism (if you think it’s in need of resistance)?
  • What does the atheist’s use of the Holocaust to castigate theists say about atheist moral assumptions? What is the genealogy of those moral assumptions?

The Holocaust is the tight rope held close to the ground over which all must trip, not because it is not noticed, but because it is.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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2 Responses to Did God Die In The Holocaust?

  1. Michael Fishman says:

    You raise a lot of points here and I’m no one to really answer any of them. I’m struggling enough just trying to stay balanced on this tightrope of agnosticism I seem to be walking on. I can’t rationalize or justify or understand the Holocaust, but you ask, “How, therefore, does one pray after the Holocaust? How does one go on believing in God?”. If it’s true that God is our “Parent” then haven’t there a lot of times in our lives – our young lives – when we didn’t understand the actions of our parents? We didn’t understand their motives, we asked for explanations and if we were lucky enough to get some it was quite possible we didn’t understand them. We got mad. Mad at our parents and mad at ourselves because we couldn’t understand our parents. We pouted and we threatened, but most of us, at least I think most of us, eventually got over the anger and our love for our parents endured. Why don’t we apply the same to God? The Holocaust with its suffering and pain pisses us off and we don’t understand it but maybe there’s simply not anything for us to understand? It just was. It just is. That doesn’t mean we’re ignorant, or confused, or disapproving or in denial. It just means we don’t understand.

    Personally, the whole concept of ‘free will’ has always seemed silly to me and nothing more than a method for those who don’t know the answers to try and explain the answers to those who seek answers. Sure, a drunk leaving the bar has free will and he can exercise his free will to drive drunk. But the woman he runs into, the mother of three children he murders, she didn’t exercise her free will to die and leave her three children motherless. Something is just muddy with the free will argument to me and I prefer to recognize that stuff simply happens, I don’t know why it happens and despite thinking about it and asking about it, chances are pretty good that I’m not going to find out why it happens so I just go on living. And by living, I don’t mean simply walking through life, but doing what I think God would want people to do. The will to power, as you mentioned, but not for tangible goals or personal goals, but the will to power to work with God, or on behalf of God, to create a world that is truly beautiful and enjoyable for everyone.

    Your mention of nihilists made me think of the scene toward the end of The Big Lebowski where the three friends are confronted by the nihilists in the bowling alley’s parking lot.
    Nihilist: “It’s not fair!”
    Walter: “Fair? Who’s the fu@king nihilist here? What are you, a bunch of cu@king crybabies?”

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post this morning!

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      What strikes me about your response is how a narrative shift–think about God as a father who does things his children can’t yet understand–functions to shut down sustained inquiry.

      I’m not saying you’re wrong to resort to the analogy, and leave it at that, but it is a form of falling into silence about the question; or rather, bringing oneself to silence.

      Maybe this is what faith is, ultimately: a ceasing of questions into silence and marshaling on with the program because you can’t endure an answer different from the one you are invested in.

      Again, I’m not attacking the position. It’s Kierkegaard. I’m just noticing that it is the route you seem to be entertaining.

      –Santi

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