The War that Killed God Too. Seriously.

What does it take to get people to snap out of it?
It was Jesus himself who gave the clue that God would ultimately let us down. The prayer that he famously taught his followers includes the words, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” To figure out what this means, we have to grasp the context of his preaching about the ‘kingdom.’ This may be hard to do, given the Jesus hype we’re so used to. George Federick Handel put Isaiah 9:6 to music, and helped give ‘our savior’ his holy glow: “For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” It was Handel, by the way, who applied these words to Jesus—not any of the New Testament authors.

There’s no hint in this exaggerated praise that Jesus was, in fact, an apocalyptic prophet. That is, he prophesied that history would end soon: the ‘kingdom of God’ was about to arrive. He wanted people to pray for this to happen, to urge God along, I suppose. There would be big changes on Earth.

A word of caution, of course. The gospels are religious fantasy literature—or as Robert Conner has put it recently on the DC Blog, folklore. We have no basis for trusting that the gospel writers got much of anything right. ‘Jesus the Apocalyptic Prophet’ is one of many possible reconstructions that can be based on the gospel accounts.

Hence faithful Christians have been saying this prayer by rote for two thousand years. That’s a long time to hound God to get the job done. There’s something amiss: The ‘kingdom’ never arrived, and from many texts in the gospels, Jesus seems to have expected it to happen soon. Don’t Christians ever stop to think that, just maybe, Jesus got the message wrong? The apostle Paul shared this obsession, and frantically warned people to get ready.

But alas, human history has unfolded with no heavenly kingdom in sight; colossal human suffering has continued unabated for centuries. What happened?—and why have Christians prayed in vain for so long?

It has turned out to be a major chore for Christian theologians to finesse this anticipated kingdom—‘any day now’—into a ‘spiritual truth,’ to convince the faithful that Jesus hadn't been wrong. These same over-worked apologists must reconcile human and animal suffering with belief in a powerful, caring God who “has the whole world in his hands.”

In fact, of course, there is the long litany of upheavals and catastrophes that undermine god-is-good theology; but this week, as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, let’s consider this calamity as Exhibit A in making the case that there is no God (although we could nominate countless other Exhibit A’s).

In an idealistic mood, H. G. Wells hoped that the WWI would be “…the war to end all wars.” It had caused so much wreckage—so many lives lost, such a wide swath of ruin and suffering—how could humans ever make such a big mistake again? This war had set new standards for barbarity, previously held by The Thirty Years War (1618 -1648), a bloody rampage of Christians fighting Christians. That war had killed eight million people, but WWI took some sixteen million lives, primarily because weaponry had become highly mechanized:

“For millions of soldiers, the First World War meant unimaginable horror: artillery shells that could pulverize a human body into a thousand fragments; immense underground mine explosions that could do the same to hundreds of bodies; attacks by poison gas, tanks, flamethrowers.” (Adam Hochschild, “The Eleventh Hour,” 5 November 2018, The New Yorker)

Bear in mind that about 60,000 U.S. soldiers died in the Vietnam War; more than a million soldiers were killed during the Battle of the Somme, July-November, 1916. At the Battle of Verdun, February-December, 1916, 300,000 were killed.

“War’s rancours are quick to bite and slow to heal. By the end of 1914, four months after the outbreak of the Great War, 300,000 Frenchmen had been killed, 600,000 wounded, out of a male population of twenty million, perhaps ten million of military age…among the five million wounded in the war, moreover, several hundred thousand were numbered as ‘grands mutilés,’ soldiers who had lost limbs or eyes. Perhaps the worst afflicted were the victims of disfiguring facial wounds, some of whom were so awful to behold that secluded rural settlements were established, where they could holiday together.” (John Keegan, The First World War, pp. 6-7)

How can these realities not be an insurmountable obstacle for Christian theologians who argue that God is paying attention and cares? Sometimes laypeople, untutored in theological sophistry, perceive the phoniness. Robert Graves, author of one of the classic WWI memoirs, Goodbye to All That, said of his pious mother:

“She kept off the subject of war as much as possible; always finding it difficult to explain how it was that God permitted wars.” (p. 30)

How indeed. Christian apologists are immune even to the grim WWI numbers. We can cite how many were killed, wounded, and disfigured; how many starved to death in Germany alone because of the North Sea blockade. But the faith-defenders are content to wave these figures aside; they cannot be evidence of God’s negligence. What an affront to blame God! His hands must remain clean.

But their own theology—the insistence that God is paying attention—no longer convinces: they insist that God is so much involved. The New Testament teaches that he knows even our thoughts; each person is far more valuable to God than two sparrows. It’s no wonder that “I belong to Jesus” has become a faith mantra, and we hear as well that God has plans for our lives.

As we contemplate the impact of WWI on millions of lives, can’t we ditch these theological fantasies? So much went so seriously wrong. With the passage of time, it is easy for all this tragedy to fall below our horizons of awareness. But, if for no other reason than to smack down bad theology, we should pay careful attention.

Another classic WWI memoir, Testament of Youth (1933), was written by Vera Brittain. Her fiancé, brother and two close friends were killed in the war, and she served as a battlefield nurse. She found it hard to sustain the piety in which she had been raised:

• “… after seeing some of the dreadful things I have seen here, I feel I shall never be the same person again, and wonder if, when the War does end, I shall have forgotten how to laugh. The other day I did involuntarily laugh at something and it felt quite strange. Some of the things in our ward are so horrible that it seems as if no merciful dispensation of the Universe could allow them and one’s consciousness to exist at same time. One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at—it was the first time after the operation—with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born.” (p. 191)

“…it seems as if no merciful dispensation of the Universe could allow them and one’s consciousness to exist at same time.” God-defenders fail to achieve Vera’s sensitivity to appalling evil.

Did she wander into a church hoping to find solace? She found torment instead:

“…I went to St. Paul’s Cathedral for the morning service, and sat in a side aisle beneath G. F. Watts’s picture of Hagar in the Desert. Her Gethsemane, I thought, had been even darker than that of the Man of Sorrows, who after all knew—or believed—that He was God; she was merely a human being without omnipotence, and a woman too, at the mercy, as were all women today, of an agonizing, ruthless fate which it seemed she could do nothing to restrain. ‘Watchman, will the night soon pass?’ ran the inscription under the painting, and I wondered how many women in the Cathedral that morning, numbed and bewildered by blow after blow, were asking the self-same question.” (p. 236)

“…an agonizing, ruthless fate which it seemed she could do nothing to restrain…” The trite theological resort to ‘free will’ as the culprit for what she witnessed—well, all such babble was meaningless:

“The world was mad and we were all victims; that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.” (p. 343)

And at one point Brittain remarked that the young men and women who went to war between 1914 and 1919 were “disastrously pure of heart and unsuspicious of elderly self-interest and cynical exploitation…” (p. 336) None of this was evil that they had chosen by free will. How could that ever be offered as an excuse for God’s negligence?

“…after the Somme I had seen men without faces, without eyes, without limbs, men almost disemboweled, men with hideous truncated stumps of bodies…” (p. 308)

“…the dying patient was not much interested in the forgiveness of his sins; evil from which neither friends nor enemies could deliver him prevailed all too obviously.” (p. 345)

For a period during the war, Brittain served as a nurse at Malta, and now—in the new era of submarine warfare—just getting there filled her with terror:

“Throughout our journey from Mudros to Malta, an enemy submarine which no boat could locate lurked unmolested in the Mediterranean; it sank the Cunarder Franconia on October 4th, and the same day torpedoed a French transport, the Gallia, quite close to us, with the loss of six hundred lives.” (pp. 272-273)

By 1917 whatever inclinations she had to imagine a good God had fled:

“At that stage of the War, I decided indignantly, I did not propose to submit to pious dissertations on my duty to God, King and Country. That voracious trio had already deprived me of all that I most valued in life…” (p. 412)

Humanity’s murderous impulses had by no means abated, even in the wake of the Nov 11 Armistice. Adam Hochschild notes that:

• “…British, French, and American commanders made certain that the bloodshed continued at full pitch for six hours after the Armistice had been signed...

• Since the armies tabulated their casualty statistics by the day and not by the hour, we know only the total toll for November 11th: twenty-seven hundred and thirty-eight men from both sides were killed, and eighty-two hundred and six were left wounded or missing….

• The day’s toll was greater than both sides would suffer in Normandy on D Day, 1944… And so thousands of men were killed or maimed during the last six hours of the war for no political or military reason whatever…

• The war ended as senselessly as it had begun.”

Hochschild alludes to what was to come:

• “And the long-range consequences were worse still: in Germany, the conflict left a simmering bitterness that Hitler brilliantly manipulated. It is impossible to imagine the Second World War happening without the toxic legacy of the First.”

• “…when the war came to an end, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, few Germans considered themselves defeated. The resentment that led to a new cataclysm two decades later was really forged by the Armistice.”

Apologists who cling to ‘free will’ to exonerate God would do well to drop the evasions and confess that territoriality and aggression—loyalties to family and tribe are survival mechanisms—are imbedded in our brains and have wreaked havoc on the world. Why didn’t God give us better brains? Why not just remove God from the equation altogether?

Hochschild also quoted a stunningly inept comment made at the exact hour of the armistice, by the Times of London correspondent Edwin L. James:

“…four years’ killing and massacre stopped, as if God had swept His omnipotent finger across the scene of world carnage and cried, ‘Enough!’”

If God indeed had such power and inclination, if Mr. James really believed such nonsense, he should have raised a fist to the sky, “Why the fuck wait four years?” It seems, instead, that God had been giving his Omnipotent Finger to humanity, as suffering and anguish reached new heights.

Christian apologists beware: George Carlin has called it correctly:

“If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the résumé of a Supreme Being. This is the kind of shit you'd expect from an office temp with a bad attitude. And just between you and me, in any decently run universe, this guy would've been out on his all-powerful ass a long time ago.”

How can we get it through their heads—the legions of Christian apologists and the folks in the pews who do wonder about God’s neglect—that massive suffering rules out a caring, compassionate, active God? You can’t have it both ways: Something is terribly, horribly out of balance: the comforting Jesus whom they know in their hearts, who is ready to help believers escape death, but yet who—as Christopher Hitchens said—‘looks down from heaven with folded arms,’ indifferent to the catastrophic flow of human suffering.

Daft theology, bad theology, should have succumbed in the wake of WWI. Vera Brittain’s father never emerged from despair after his son, age 22, was killed in battle. He perceived that God-talk was useless: “I have no belief in a ‘special providence’ looking after people.” Yes, that view of the Cosmos has been cancelled, and Vera’s 600-page memoir is a haunting dose of reality devoid of piety. “I have been told that my book makes some people weep,” she once commented, “but I care more that it should make them think…”

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, and just been reissued by Tellectual Press, with a new Foreword by John Loftus.

The Cure-for-Christianity Library can be found here.