The Holocaust and the Problem of Suffering

In response to a previous post of mine, a reader commented:

The holocaust raises doubts about God, in what way? Evil people did evil things. The fact that it happened doesn’t cause me to doubt God. As one that believes I also believe in a God that allows choice. In the case of the Holocaust, the German population were starving and fractured as a people, Hitler brought them hope. “Oh and there is this little Jewish thing that I want to take care of, never mind that, I will make sure you are safe and fed.” And they let it happen. They choose to overlook the evil, because they had jobs and bread. That it was allowed to happen doesn’t cast doubt on the idea of a loving God, it in fact supports it. Love allows you to choose.

The reader raises an interesting question: Is God’s valuing of free will an adequate defense for the presence of evil and suffering in the world?

It would certainly be a worse world than we live in today if we were all automatons, and so it makes some sense that suffering and evil is the price we pay for this better, freer world. God is infinitely powerful, and infinitely good, and could stop all suffering and evil, but the price would be freedom, and so God does not stop them.

But does this free will argument, to your mind, really dispatch the problem of evil? It doesn’t for me. I can think of a number of objections to it. Here are three:

  • First, it seems to me that, even if God values free will, there is still no reason to believe that God would let the dice fall wherever they may with regard to who gets to have a wide ranging free will. In other words, there were, no doubt, a great many Jews in Europe who would have liked to have exercised their free will in the direction of Hitler’s head with a gun, but God did not give a single Jew in Germany the ability to exercise his or her free will in this direction. By contrast, God appears to have allowed a psychopath like Hitler an unusually wide ranging free will–someone who had the desire to destroy people and was in a position of power to actually do so. There was no apparent effort on the part of God to restrain Hitler’s free will at all in this regard. In other words, if we accept the free will defense of suffering, then it would seem to imply that, in the eyes of God, Hitler’s free will, and his ability to maximize it, was of greater value to God than the saving of six million Jews in the Holocaust.
  • Second, there are numerous Biblical passages that seem to suggest 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 please recall that Satan is restrained from hurting Job until God gives him the okay. In other words, the Bible is full of examples where God does not just let beings with free will do whatever they want, whenever they want. He sometimes intervenes, especially when he wants some particular result to come out of it. But in the case of the Holocaust, God was like the bad people in the parable of the Good Samaritan: while extraordinary suffering was occuring, he didn’t intervene, but passed by on the other side. This is why, to my mind, the Holocaust renders at least the existence of the Biblical God problematic. Am I missing something here?
  • Third, if we concede that God sometimes restrains free will, then it seems inconceivable that a good God, if capable of restraining will in general, would have a good reason for not doing so in the instance of the Holocaust. What possible “good” could arrive via this horrific route? Please recall that John Hagee fell out of John McCain’s graces for speculating that the good that came out of the Holocaust was the state of Israel. This notion that God allows the destruction of millions to obtain some “higher” end strikes many people as repellent. If the Holocaust is not a problem for positing the existence of God, why are there no non-repellent reasons that can be imagined for God allowing it to happen? 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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