Can Christianity Be Blamed for the Holocaust? Round 2

Beware of simply explanations and apologist evasions
We all remember the Apostles’ Creed—a list of things you’re supposed to believe, recited every Sunday—but there also seems to be an Apologists’ Creed. Actually it’s more of a loyalty oath: “I will never not believe the fundamentals of my faith. I will never shirk my duty to defend it.” And they work so darn hard at it. The Apologists Guild manages to recruit those whose minds can’t be unlocked.

Hence it was no surprise that the apologists who commonly troll this blog showed up to make sure that Christianity didn’t get take too much of a hit in my recent article about Christianity and the Holocaust. In fact, I did include the anti-Semitic tradition in Western Christendom as one of five possible factors that led to the Holocaust.

That article was my reflection on Hector Avalos’ essay, “Atheism Was Not the Cause of the Holocaust,” in John Loftus’ 2010 anthology, The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.”

One of the apologists wrote a 2,500-word response, which revealed, among other things, his limited listening skills. He observed: “You waste a great deal of ink trying to show that Hitler believed in God.” Really? There was one sentence in my article, quoting Avalos about Hitler, about Hitler’s beliefs. That was it.

Then he included this non sequitur:

“…the real issue at stake is: was Hitler a Christian? For if he explicitly repudiated Christianity (as I will show), then the charge that his anti-Semitic views are rooted in Christianity lacks credibility, and the claim that Christianity is somehow to blame for Hitler's Holocaust is rendered absurd.”

I am stunned by the embrace of this fallacy. Even if Hitler did explicitly repudiate Christianity—e.g., hated its doctrines and formulas for salvation—it doesn’t follow at all—and it is naïve to suggest—that he escaped its influence. Undeniably one part of the Christian package that poisoned Western thought was anti-Semitism; it was in the drinking water. Does our apologist want us to believe that it was Adolph Hitler who, of all people, put the brakes on Christian anti-Semitism?

The apologist undermines his own case with three references to the reality of Christian hatred:

(1) He cites another writer’s comment that Martin Luther’s horrendous anti-Jewish rant can be seen as “part of the tradition of Medieval Christian anti-Semitism.” Luther was passing along long-embedded hatred, and others picked up on it…

(2) …as the apologist points out: “Let me add that Adolf Hitler wasn't the first one to come up with the horrible idea of gassing the Jews. Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) suggested the idea as early as 1927, in a letter to Poultney Bigelow in which he declared: "Press, Jews & Mosquitoes...are a nuisance that humanity must get rid of in some way or another. I believe the best would be gas?"

(3) He also quotes Professor Adele Reinhartz, who references “the history of Christian anti-Judaism.”

Again: Are we to believe that Hitler rose above, shunned, Christianity’s antipathy toward the Jews? That his hatred had other sources? Maybe so, but let’s not dismiss the obvious. I quoted two Holocaust historians (following the lead of Avalos in his essay):

• “There is little question that the Holocaust had its origins in the centuries-long hostility felt by Christians against Jews.” José M. Sánchez, Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy, 2002, Catholic University Press of America.

• “Hitler was merely doing what the Church had done for 1,500 years.” Guenter Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, 2000, De Capo Press

If these two historians have it right, then it is foolish for the apologist to state: “…the claim that Christianity is somehow to blame for Hitler's Holocaust is rendered absurd.” There is no “somehow” about it. This evil strain in Christianity’s worldview was in the mix. But please, as I cautioned: beware of simple explanations.

The apologist also wrote: “You spend a great deal of time highlighting the anti-Semitism of John’s Gospel…” No. The theme of my article was not that charge against John’s Gospel, which is a whole other topic. But I did indeed quote—following Avalos—the vicious text from John 8, i.e., Jesus’ accusation that the Jewish leaders had the devil, a murdered and a liar, for their father. My citing of this episode alarmed another of the ‘usual suspect’ apologists, who had to jump in:

“…this was not an indictment of the Jews in general. Avalos ignores that to make Jesus into some kind of anti-Semite. How crazy is that? Jesus was himself a Jew. His friends were all Jews. He wept over the refusal of Jerusalem to receive him as their Messiah. He died for them. An anti-Semite? No.”

Now we have to pause to consider the multiple layers that have to be unpacked here to see what’s going on.

Layer Number 1: The Galilean peasant preacher who taught in synagogues and told a man he had healed to go make the offering that Moses commanded (Mark 1:44)—could he have been an anti-Semite? No, of course not. Avalos is not suggesting that; neither am I.

Layer Number 2: Far more important was the agenda of the gospel writer. What was he thinking? What was his motivation? In 1935, Charles Guignebert, Professor of Christian History at the Sorbonne, stated the obvious, which we should always keep in mind: “It was not the essence of Jesus that interested the authors of our Gospels, it was the essence of Christ, as their faith pictured him. They were exclusively interested, not in reporting what they know, but in proving what they believe.” (Jesus, 1935) Why would John have put this nasty script (chapter 8) into Jesus’ mouth? That’s what needs to be considered.

We can be fairly certain that it was John’s invention. Those who want us to believe that the gospels are based on eyewitness reports—or reliable oral tradition—need to provide the evidence for this claim. Not inferences or suppositions or wishful thinking. How come the ‘eyewitnesses’ behind Matthew, Mark, and Luke failed to report the massive Jesus monologues found only in John? How come they missed changing water into wine, the raising of Lazarus, and the existence of the Beloved Disciple? How come John never reports any of the parables found in the other three gospels? No, this is not a case of faulty eyewitnesses: Jesus in John’s gospel—with his egregiously inflated ego—was John’s invention. The Jesus scripts in this gospel are John’s own florid theological ramblings.

Layer Number 3: Quite apart from what Jesus the peasant preacher did or didn’t say (and this figure has been largely replaced anyway with the Divine Logos Jesus in John’s gospel); quite apart from John’s agenda in creating the scene in John 8, we have to wonder why on earth a good god who ‘inspired’ this vicious text couldn’t have foreseen—didn’t have a clue apparently—how it would be used for destructive purposes (an issue I discussed in an other article).

Such stuff doesn’t belong in a ‘holy’ book. Period. And concerning the argument that it was just the Jewish leaders that Jesus was mad at in John 8, that’s a distinction that could easily be lost as the story gained traction later as an anti-Jewish text. John 8, combined, for example, with Acts 13:45 & 50-51, makes a lethal combination:

Acts 13:45: But when the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy; and blaspheming, they contradicted what was spoken by Paul…

13:50-15: But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, and stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their region. So they shook the dust off their feet in protest against them…

Try Bluffing

In his 2,500 word response, our indignant apologist indulged in a major diversionary ploy, to distract from the Biblical roots of Christianity’s shameful legacy of anti-Semitism. He quoted about a dozen anti-Gentile texts (though, not surprisingly, he omitted Matthew 15:26 in which Jesus referred to a Canaanite woman as a dog.) And this was his conclusion: “If you're going to argue that the New Testament is anti-Semitic, then you'll have to argue that it's anti-Gentile as well.”

No, but even if Yes, there was little harmful fallout. And yes, sometimes apologists can sometimes be this daft. You see—really it’s hard to miss this—the Gentiles won. They became the church, so anti-Gentile texts were just so much white noise. In addition, the Gentile church folks could just brush off those texts in which the Galilean preacher said his mission was only to the Jews. But then, in the church, scorn and contempt set in toward those who denied that Jesus was the Messiah. The Jews rejected what the church held most precious. So any New Testament text that spoke harshly of the Jews was fuel for the fire.

But I return to the warning of my subtitle: Beware of simple explanations. In my original article I mentioned five possible factors, among many others I’m sure, that culminated in the Holocaust. And one surely was hatred toward the Jews that Christianity did its part to enhance and encourage. It is simplistic and naïve to suggest that this factor can be deleted, even if this is a fond hope of apologists.

A Digression: Exploring an Apologetic Tangent

At the top of my list of factors contributing to the Holocaust was this:

• World War II was almost guaranteed by the humiliation inflicted on Germany at the end of World War I.

Which promoted a flameout by the apologist featured in this response. He wrote, “That’s a baseless canard…” and went on a rant.

“Baseless canard”? You’d think I’d said something like, “The Vatican seems to be useless in preventing priests from raping children” (oh wait…)

He was upset by my comment that Germany had been humiliated, and he quoted historians who deny that the reparations imposed on Germany following WWI were as onerous as has been portrayed.

But I was thinking of humiliation quite apart from reparations, i.e., major damage to the national psyche:

• After four years of savage, murderous trench warfare, Germany lost the war.

• After two million of its citizens died in the conflict, Germany lost the war.

This loss was just shrugged off? “Oh well, shit happens.”

This is the opening paragraph of John Keegan’s book, The First World War (the bolding is mine):

The First World War was a tragic and unnecessary conflict. Unnecessary because the train of events that led to its outbreak might have been broken at any point during the five weeks of crisis that preceded the first clash of arms, had prudence or common goodwill found a voice; tragic because the consequences of the first clash ended the lives of ten million human beings, tortured the emotional lives of millions more, destroyed the benevolent and optimistic culture of the European continent and left, when the guns at last fell silent four years later, a legacy of political rancour and racial hatred so intense that no explanation of the causes of the Second World War can stand without reference to those roots. The Second World War, five times more destructive of human life and incalculably more costly in material terms, was the direct outcome of the First. On 18 September 1922, Adolf Hitler, the demobilised front fighter, threw down a challenge to defeated Germany that he would realise seventeen years later: “It cannot be that two million Germans should have fallen in vain … No, we do not pardon, we demand—vengeance!”


“The Second World War, when it came in 1939, was unquestionably the outcome of the First, and in large measure its continuation.”

Finally, here was added horror and humiliation: Defeat, despite all this suffering:

“The surviving German ‘grands mutilés’ included 44,657 who lost a leg, 20,877 who lost an arm, 136 who lost both arms and 1,264 who lost both legs. There were also 2,547 war blind, a fraction of those seriously wounded in the head, of whom most died. In all, 2,057,000 Germans died in the war, or of wounds in its aftermath.”

Denying German humiliation because ‘reparations weren’t so bad’—and by the way, any reparations at all were part of the humiliation—is bafflingly shortsighted and dense. “…tortured the emotional lives of millions more,” as Keegan noted, is part of the definition of humiliation.

My article, and Avalos’ essay, were about how best to account for mass murder pulled off by a madman. There are no simple explanations, but Christians should own up to the role that the sins of their fathers probably played. And contemplate the implications of that for the much-vaunted superiority of ‘Christian morality.’

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published in 2016 by Tellectual Press.

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