God, Evil and the Holocaust

I believe in the sun when it is not shining.
I believe in love even when feeling it not.
I believe in God even when He is silent.{1}

These tragic words were anonymously inscribed on the walls of a cellar in Cologne, Germany, where several Jews were hiding from the Nazis. In a most profound way they raise the eternal issue of faith in a loving God both during and since the Holocaust. In fact, a more pressing question has emerged, namely whether God exists at all; and if He does, the Holocaust brings into question that either His goodness or His power to restrain evil must be diminished somehow.

David Wolf Silverman, writing from within the context of Conservative Judaism, steadfastly maintains that after the Holocaust one must recognize that God is not all-powerful:

The Holocaust has, I think, dismissed any easy use of omnipotence as an attribute appropriate to God. After Auschwitz, He can assert with greater force than ever before that an omnipotent God would have to be either sadistic or totally unintelligible. But if God is to be intelligible in some manner and to some extent–and to this I hold firm–then His goodness must be compatible with the existence of evil, and this is only if He is not all-powerful. Only then can we maintain that He is intelligible and good, and there is yet evil in the world. . . .The Holocaust disclosed the depths to which man had sunk and the degree to which God withdrew.{2}

The two critical questions then, regarding the Holocaust from a theological perspective, involve the existence of God and the nature of evil. These are two pointed issues around which many students and survivors of the Holocaust have clustered for forty years. In the Jewish community the approaches to these two problems have been varied. Expressions of protest have spanned from the traditional to the radical. A poignant expression of this dilemma has been expressed by Jacob Neusner, conservative rabbi and historian, who takes the problem a step further in identifying the Holocaust as the central obstacle to contemporary Jewish belief:

The murder of nearly six million Jews in Europe constitutes the single predominant issue in, and obstacle to, Jewish belief. . . . It is contained in the key-word “Auschwitz,” which is used to refer to the terrible experience of European Jewry from 1933 to 1945, the extermination of men and women and children only on account of their having been born to a Jewish parent (or, in fact, having had a single Jewish grandparent). To put it simply: Where was God when these things happened?{3}

The multifarious responses to the Holocaust are grounded in the philosophical/theological underpinnings from which they spring. Understandably, traditionally-minded Jews and devout Christians will frame a response to the Holocaust that is far different from the atheistic and nihilistic perspectives of others.

From the religious perspective within contemporary Judaism, Katz has summarized some of the leading ideas:

Out of the still nascent and still uncertain conversation on the Holocaust several general responses, with their various combinations and configurations have emerged. They can be enumerated as follows:

1. The Holocaust is like all other tragedies and merely raises again the question of theodicy and “the problem of evil,” but it does not significantly alter the problem or contribute anything new to it.
2. The classical Jewish theological doctrine of Mi-penei hata’einu (“because of our sins we were punished”) which was evolved in the face of earlier national calamities can also be applied to the Holocaust. According to this account, Israel was sinful and Auschwitz is her just retribution.
3. The Holocaust is the ultimate in vicarious atonement. Israel is the “suffering servant” of Isaiah (ch. 53ff.)–she suffers and atones for the sins of others. Some die so that others might be cleansed and live.
4. The Holocaust is a modern Akedah (sacrifice of Isaac–it is a test of our faith.
5. The Holocaust is an instance of the temporary “Eclipse of God–there are times when God is inexplicably absent from history or unaccountably chooses to turn His face away.
6. The Holocaust is proof that “God is dead”–if there were a God He would surely have prevented Auschwitz; if He did not then He does not exist.
7. The Holocaust is the maximization of human evil, the price mankind has to pay for human freedom. The Nazis were men, not gods; Auschwitz reflects ignominiously on man; it does not touch God’s existence or perfection.
8. The Holocaust is revelation: it issues a call for Jewish affirmation. From Auschwitz comes the command: Jews survive!
9. The Holocaust is an inscrutable mystery: like all of God’s ways it transcends human understanding and demands faith and silence.{4}

The radical positions focus on accepting the “impotence of God’s omnipotence”: In fact, there is no need for God to be absolute in power to be God. God is better understood as a becoming even as is the universe and man. God struggles against evil and learns to overcome it. Man can help God and God can help man. They are co-workers in the building of the kingdom. Man needs God and God needs man. The tradition does hint at some limitations in God’s power. “Everything is in the power of heaven,” said the rabbis, “except the fear of heaven.”{5}

Another suggests that the covenants were disavowed because the covenant people were largely annihilated: Since there can be no covenant without the covenant people, the fundamental existence of Jews and Judaism is thrown into question by this genocide. . . . Yet surely it is God who did not keep His share of the covenant in defending His people in this generation. It is the miracle of the people of Israel that they persist in faith. Surely it is they who should be justified.{6}

Yet another says that God died during the Holocaust:

No man can really say that God is dead. How can we know that? Nevertheless, I am compelled to say that we live in the time of the “death of God.” . . . When I say we live in the time of the death of God, I mean that the thread uniting God and man, heaven and earth, has been broken. We stand in a cold, silent, unfeeling cosmos, unaided by any purposeful power beyond our own resources. After Auschwitz, what else can a Jew say about God?{7}

One burning question which haunts those who would find meaning for the Holocaust lies in the fundamental question of the existence of God and its corollary, the origin and nature of evil. Closely related to these two is the question of human significance and the vastly different conclusions arrived at through naturalistic atheism and Judeo/Christian theism. The dilemma for the contemporary Jew is a heroic struggle against a traditional God who could have permitted the Holocaust and identification with a Fuhrer who, while giving lip service to theism, approached the “Jewish Question” in a purely naturalistic, godless framework. To accept the former is to submit to the unthinkable; to embrace the latter is to align oneself with the devil incarnate.

It is interesting to observe this struggle in the lives of the survivors themselves. Transcending the traditional categories of Jewry–the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed–individual victims traveled different paths to cope with the horrors they faced. Emil Fackenheim, Jewish philosopher and survivor, observed both religious and non-religious responses under the extreme stresses of death camp life:

Why hold fast to the God of the covenant? Former believers lost Him in the Holocaust Kingdom. Former agnostics found Him. No judgment is possible. All theological arguments vanish. Nothing remains but the fact that the bond between Him and His people reached the breaking point but was not for all wholly broken. He (a survivor) is a witness the like the world has not seen.{8}

And Wiesel speaks of both kinds of religious experience:

Loss of faith for some equaled discovery of God for others. Both answered to the same need to take a stand, the same impulse to rebel. In both cases, it was an accusation. Perhaps some day someone will explain how, on the level of man, Auschwitz was possible; but on the level of God, it will forever remain the most disturbing of mysteries.{9}

For some the Holocaust was a religiously shattering experience, for others a religiously developing one. Viktor Frankl, psychotherapist as well as a Holocaust survivor, records his personal observations of this phenomenon: The truth is that among those who actually went through the experience of Auschwitz, the number whose religious life was deepened–in spite, not to say because, of this experience–by far exceeds the number of those who gave up their belief. To paraphrase what La Rochefoucauld once remarked with regard to love, one might say that just as the small fire is extinguished by the storm whereas a large fire is enhanced by it–likewise a weak faith is weakened by predicaments and catastrophes whereas a strong faith is strengthened by them.{10}

Many of those who persisted in faith through such a storm probably did so at an intensely personal level rather than a highly philosophical one filled with finely-honed arguments about the nature of evil or an acceptable theodicy. And yet the basic questions were posed, as illustrated by Wiesel in Night when the survivors witnessed the hanging of two adults and a young boy: “Where is God? Where is He?”{11}

Those abandoning theism found the implications of the position emotionally and intellectually unacceptable in the naked reality and enormity of the horrors suffered. But theists find the alternatives to faith equally unsatisfying. Some of these objections have to do with the nature of evil and some with the nature of God. Five are noteworthy. The first is illusionism, a position that denies the existence of evil itself as true reality. Philosophically, this view is less than satisfactory. If evil is an illusion, then where did this illusion originate?

Too, if evil is merely an illusion, then why does it seem so real? And finally, what practical difference does it make if one views evil as illusion or as reality, especially if the evil of the Holocaust has devoured Him?

A second unacceptable philosophical position also concerns the nature of evil and can be designated as dualism. Here, evil is not denied as illusion, but rather it is said to have eternally co-existed with good. Both good and evil exist independently as eternal entities. Process theology with its bipolar God encompassing all things in an unfolding growth process is one modern expression of this position.

But if these two entities are equal and eternal, there seems no possibility of bringing about any kind of moral victory in the world, to say nothing of the lack of motivation for one to turn to such an impotent and contradictory God in times of suffering or in loving worship.

The third unacceptable philosophical position concerns the nature of God Himself and can be called finitism. In this position evil is seen as real, but the traditional view of God as omnipotent is rejected. God is all-loving, but not all-powerful and hence incapable of destroying evil. But why would God create a world if He could not control evil or ever triumph over it? And if every finite being is created, then who or what created this finite God?

A fourth view also concerns the nature of God and can be called sadism. Once again, the reality of evil is affirmed while the nature of God is radically challenged. In contrast to finitism, which sees God as impotent, sadism maintains His omnipotence, but denies His all-loving nature. He thus is either unconcerned about evil or He actually delights in it. Simon Friedeman, addressing himself to this concept from within Reform Judaism, and a Holocaust survivor himself, has said: I cannot conceive of God being capable of performing miracles and refraining from doing it. I could not worship a God capable of preventing the horrors in the Nazi death campus Who did not act.{12}

Further, if God is limited in His love, then he must also be limited in His moral nature (which means there is no ultimate moral standard by which to measure Him). This would not only be incompatible with His nature; it also defies the rationale that He would destroy that which He created.

A fifth and final position does not seek to modify the nature of God to accommodate for the reality of evil and suffering, but rather questions His very existence. Instead of making evil an illusion, atheism claims that God is an illusion. That is, the very presence and reality of evil prove that God does not exist at all. The unrestrained evil of Nazism has driven some Jewish scholars and survivors to embrace this position.

But how can one deny that God exists without actually implying at the same time that He does exist? In other words, does not the denial of God’s existence necessitate a prior postulate equal toGod? In maintaining that the very existence of evil proves that God exists, is not the atheist ignoring the time element involved in eliminating evil? How can the present existence of evil prove that God does not exist, when the future might bring with it the divine defeat of such evil?
Two positions relating to God and evil that have found acceptance among theists, both Jewish and Christian, are closely related. The first deals with the possibility of a divine Creator, a certain kind of divine Creator–One who is both infinite and personal. This is the essence of theism. The second deals with the possibility of a divine creation, a certain kind of divine creation—one which is moral and fallen.

With respect to theism itself two basic options have found adherents. The first is “the greatest world” concept advocated both by Augustine (354-430) and Leibniz (1646-1716). It maintains that of all the worlds that God could have created, this is the best of all worlds. The present evil in the world is absolutely necessary in order to highlight the good in the world. If God is the best of all beings, then the world that He creates must also be the best of all worlds, reflecting His character.

This view may not be the most preferred explanation because it tends to pronounce evil as good, or at least distorts the concept of evil. It also tends to justify evil in view of some alleged overall good that it is supposed to portray.

Aquinas (1225-74) and others have offered an alternative which might be called “the greatest way” theodicy. This view does not maintain that this world is the best of all possible worlds. Quite the contrary, it insists that this world is thoroughly run over by evil and suffering. But if God is the Author of everything, He must of necessity be the Author of evil as well. One solution to this problem is set forth by Augustine in his idea of “privation.” Evil is not a thing or substance, but rather a privation or lack of something that should rightly be there. He states that God is totally good, and therefore all created things are good as well. They were created good, but then became evil through privation or corruption. Different from illusionism, evil here exists, but not in itself; it only exists in another as a corruption of it, an ontological parasite. And Augustine went on to make clear that privation is not the same thing as mere absence or negation. The lack of sight in a rock is merely an absence, but in a blind man it is a true privation.

But the obvious question naturally arises: what is the source of such a privation? Augustine asserted that God is supreme and incorruptible good and therefore His creative acts were good, in fact, “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God in his perfection cannot be destroyed, but His creation can. If something is created or composed then it can, by its very nature, be destroyed or decomposed. Corruption and privation are thus subsequent steps which have displayed themselves through the choices of human beings through history. Prager and Telushkin affirm the same concept and place it within the context of the Holocaust:

God did not build Auschwitz and its crematoria. Man did. Man, not God, is responsible for the Holocaust. Judaism posits that people have freedom of choice. Perhaps we would prefer that people had been created as robots who could do only good rather than as human beings who can also choose evil. But this is impossible; only where there exists the possibility of evil does there exist the possibility of good.{14}

Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen is a powerful statement of this principle. Like a photographer, his snapshots of death camp life are served up on a morally flat canvas devoid of all ethical judgments. The text evokes the universal human cry for a hierarchy of moral postulates without which all choices lose their meaning.

Therefore, free choice arising out of human selfishness and aggression is the first cause of evil. There is no other cause, and it must be concluded that the ultimate solution to the metaphysical problem of evil is moral.

But the question must then be asked: Why did an absolute, good God fashion creatures with free moral choice when He knew that they would include choices of evil? Obviously, if His creatures possess free choice, it goes without saying that a sovereign God has the same prerogative. Geisler suggests that only four possible options come into view when considering the various worlds that God could have made in the exercise of His free and sovereign choice.{15}

The first option was not to create at all. But there is no commonality between nothing and something; a non-world would have no moral or metaphysical status at all. This present world would be better than no world at all, especially if it is the way to the best of all worlds.

A second option would have been an amoral world where human beings functioned like animals or robots, free from all moral decisions. Here again there is no adequate comparison which can be made between a moral and amoral world. At this one juncture, the gulf between man and animal is at its greatest. Since humans are finite and corruptible, they will always have moral choices to make. Robots and animals do not. The distinction is qualitative, not quantitative.

A third option consists of a morally innocent world where creatures were free, but where they would never choose evil. While this may have been possible, it is difficult to imagine producing such a world without tampering with human freedom. And a world where evil never occurred might be considered a morally inferior one because it could never call man to higher and nobler causes and achievement. The higher virtues of life in this present world call for all the best in human beings.

A fourth possibility was for God to create a world where men and women were free but also were capable of evil. It appears that this is the world that He did create. It is not the best of all worlds, but it is the way to the best of all worlds. In this framework, it is difficult to accept the enormity of the Holocaust as something that God could allow on our way to a brighter future. But pain and suffering, to a greater and lesser extent, have touched every human soul. In this we have universal fellowship. If human beings have value, the loss of a single innocent life, or six, is as morally unacceptable as the loss of six million.

At levels of human understanding this fourth view may not meet all emotional and intellectual demands to be considered acceptable by all. But even with its shortcomings, it is preferable in my judgment to those views which leave people in despair and hopelessness. Such nihilistic conclusions to life are not the substance upon which the future may be safely and positively built. If we would lift others, we must be on higher ground. Denying God and evil do not achieve this, but rather the reverse: the abyss grows wider and deeper.

And what the Holocaust has done with unrelenting severity is to remind the inhabitants of this planet how great is our need to discard the romantic idea that we are basically good at the core and that we always mean well. The Holocaust suggests to us that in spite of all progress and technological advance, human beings are still extremely capable of the most heinous crimes and, under the proper conditions, can be readily induced to become participants in exquisite collaborations with evil. In the other hemisphere, Douglas MacArthur spoke eloquently to this point in 1945 from the decks of the battleship Missouri:

We’ve had our last chance. If we will not devise some greater and more equitable system, Armageddon will be at our door. The problem is basically theological, and involves the spiritual recandescence and improvement of human character, that will synchronize with our matchless advances in science, art, literature, and all the cultural and material developments of the past 2,000 years. It must be of the spirit, if we are to save the flesh.{16}

This is a time when we need more theology, not less. But it must be a theology of compassion and respect. Before the Christian church developed creeds and institutions that made it for centuries a power with which to be reckoned, its Founder carried on a simple ministry of meeting needs and caring for others by His very example. Here was no Constantine, coercing others into the faith by ecclesiastical or political power. He freely gave Himself away to others, gave them the freedom to walk away, and asked for nothing in return. Had He lived twenty centuries later, there is no doubt in my mind that He would have been in the midst of His people . . . doing now exactly as He did then.


1. Eliezer L. Erhmann, ed., Readings in Modern Jewish History: From the American Revolution to the Present, p. 232.
2. David Wolf Silverman, “The Holocaust: A Living Force,” Conservative Judaism 31 (Fall 1976–Winter 1977)” 24-25.
3. Jacob Neusner, ed., Understanding Jewish Theology: Classical Issues and Modern Perspectives, pp. 150, 163.
4. Steven T. Katz, “Jewish Faith After the Holocaust: Four Approaches,” in Encyclopaedia Judaica Year Book, 1975/6, p. 93.
5. Simon Friedeman, “God in Buchenwald,” The Jewish Spectator 34 (October 1969): p. 21.
6. Irving Greenberg, “Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity after the Holocaust,” in Auschwitz: Beginning of a New Era?, pp. 833-34.
7. Richard L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism, pp. 151-53.
8. Emil L. Fackenheim, “The Human Condition After Auschwitz,” in Understanding Jewish Theology: Classical Issues and Modern Perspectives, p. 171.
9. Elie Wiesel, Legends of Our Time, p. 20.
10. Viktor E. Frankl, The Unconscious God: Psychotherapy and Theology, p. 16.
11. Elie Wiesel, Night, p. 76.
12. Friedeman, p. 21.
13. Norman Geisler, The Roots of Evil, pp. 43-52.
14. Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin, The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, p. 35.
15. Geisler, pp. 55-63. 16. Douglas MacArthur, Reminiscences, p. 237.

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