Holding On to a Horrible God

“…remarkably resistant to rational inquiry”

There are some human tragedies that prove unsettling to even the most devout folks. Faith is shaken because events seem to shatter confidence that there’s a god who has “the whole world in his hands.” His eye is on the sparrow, he even knows how many hairs are on our heads. That god is paying attention. So how do big tragedies happen, right under his nose—so it would seem? The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed more than 225,000 people; a huge percentage were infants and toddlers—crushed and drowned by the waters. In 2012, at Sandy Hook School in Connecticut, a gunman murdered twenty kids (six and seven-year-olds), and six members of the staff. In 2000, a Concorde aircraft crashed in flames on takeoff from Charles de Gaulle airport: 109 people on board were burned alive. These horrors remain firmly in my mind.


I’m sure that even for the faithful, there are painful surges of doubt: “Maybe we’ve got it all wrong about god.” But then, especially with encouragement from the clergy, traditional excuses for divine inaction kick in, e.g. god works in mysterious ways, we can’t know his bigger plan: our god is good, we just know it. But some people do walk away, because the excuses don’t get the job done: how could a good, caring, competent god have allowed these things to happen? For example, couldn’t god have jammed the gun of the Sandy Hook killer—that was beyond his power? Or put the shooter’s car in the ditch on the way to the school, with a flat tire. If god is watching everything, surely his inaction is inexcusable. 


But truly, the colossal tragedies of the Twentieth Century should have killed off Christian theism: the absence of god—even the death of god—has been confirmed. Darrell Ray has written:


“It took two world wars for Europeans to realize that the prayers of millions of people were not answered. It doesn’t take too much intelligence to see that the god isn’t working too well when 92 million people died in two world wars.”  (The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Cultures


For comparison, we might consider the Thirty-Years War, 1618-1648—based largely on religious hatreds—during which four to eight million people were killed. War technology had advanced so much by the twentieth century (think machine guns, airplanes, submarines) that killing on massive scales—92 million people—became possible. Add to that the invention of the motion-picture cameras and modern broadcasting: People everywhere could witness the unprecedented death and devastation, making god-is-good theology even more suspect, and, eventually, untenable.  


Moreover, unrestrained, irrational human hatreds played a large role as well, on a level never seen before. The horrors of the Second World War include the Holocaust. If nothing else, this should have put an abrupt end to belief in a caring, competent god. But one of the odd byproducts of the Holocaust has been intensified effort by theists to demonstrate that god cannot be held accountable, that he/she/it is good and competent, despite all appearances to the contrary. This apologetic obsession is nothing less than a theological scandal.  


A must-read on this explosion of truly offensive theobabble is Vitaly

Malkin’s essay, “The Problem of the Jewish Holocaust,” in John W. Loftus’ 2021 anthology, God and Horrendous Suffering. Malkin describes the huge effort to get god off the hook as senseless:


“Rather than fighting the evil in the world, it consumes enormous resources in presenting arguments exonerating god from any blame for it…Is god really unable to justify himself? To give us some sort of sign? Besides, any god who needs our justification does not merit being called god—this is no god at all.”  (pp. 167-168)


At the beginning of his essay, Malkin describes his research into how “ordinary” Christian believers deal with the problem of evil and suffering. He interviewed many individuals, then explored Christian websites and blog—and was shocked:


…the vast majority of ordinary Christians ask no questions at all. This can be attributed both to naivety and gullibility (church ministers, especially the hierarchs, know best) and to complete lack of critical thinking—along with doubt, its bastard offspring.” (p. 167)


His great interest, however, was finding out how the Holocaust had impacted Jewish theology. After all, there’s no way that the Holocaust can be minimized; it’s one of the most thoroughly documented crimes in history. The Nazis were proud of their efforts to rid the world of Jews, and kept careful records. Many of those in Hitler’s inner circle wrote detailed diaries. There have been so many memoirs written by survivors of the concentration camps. Holocaust-denial is sustained only by arrogant and aggressive ignorance. 


But Malkin was shocked to find that some Jewish theologians, for all practical purposes, have shrugged off the Holocaust: “Hey, god did what he had to do.” The basis for this can be found in the Torah, which includes the blunt promise of Yahweh to exact revenge for sin—and for being neglected as a god. These threats are in Deuteronomy 28: 

“…if you will not obey the Lord your God by diligently observing all his commandments and decrees, which I am commanding you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you…” (v. 15)

“The Lord will send upon you disaster, panic, and frustration in everything you attempt to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly, on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me.”   (v. 20)

According to one Jewish theologian, writing in 1990, blame for the Holocaust doesn’t rest with “a wild human being like Hitler.” No, Yahweh was in charge and had been keeping score:

“God kept count of each and every sin, in a running count over hundreds of years, until the count amounted to six million Jews, and that is how the Holocaust occurred. So must a Jew believe, and if a Jew does not completely believe this, he is a heretic, and if we do not accept this as punishment, then it is as if we don’t believe in the Holy One, blessed be He. After exterminating the six million, He began counting again…”. (p. 173)

Who cannot be shocked by such callous, mean-spirited theology? That was precisely my reaction when I saw these protestors. I took this picture myself, exactly ten years ago this month, across the street from the United Nations. I was tempted to engage with them, but knew that would be futile: “Are you guys out of their minds?” It was so stunned that anyone could suggest that god could be given credit for the Holocaust. This makes god into a vindictive bully who cannot be called a “blessed Holy One.” Malkin cites other examples of this theology as well, and asks, “What else could be expect from people who lost their reason after many years of religious study?” (p. 176) He draws the correct conclusion: “…either god simply does not exist, or we considerably exaggerate his significance. We live alongside an ignorant, immoral, and powerless god.”  (p. 168)

I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s observation: “Near the core of religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry.” In extreme cases, the resistance is total, and the god-idea cannot be dislodged; we’re back to what Darrell Ray calls The God Virus that infects the human brain. 

Other Jewish thinkers, however, balked at this frightful theology. Malkin mentions Rabbi Richard L. Rubenstein’s classic 1966 book, After Auschwitz, in which he asks:

“How can Jews believe in an omnipotent, beneficent God after Auschwitz? Traditional Jewish theology maintains that God is the ultimate, omnipotent actor in historical drama. It has interpreted every major catastrophe in Jewish history as God’s punishment of a sinful Israel. I fail to see how this position can be maintained without regarding Hitler and the SS as instruments of God’s will. I am compelled to say that we live in the time of the death of God…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.” (p. 177, and pp. 151-153 in After Auschwitz)

Malkin also quotes Elie Wiesel, survivor of both Auschwitz and Buchenwald: “The barbed-wire kingdom will forever remain an immense question mark on the scale of both humanity and its Creator. Faced with the unprecedented suffering and agony, He should have intervened, or at least expressed himself. Which side was he on?” (p. 178;  p. 105, Wiesel, All Rivers Run to the Sea)

That such immense tragedies are required to dislodge god from the brain is evidence that theology damages the mind, and damages the world, because it encourages shallow understanding of what happens to us in this life. Tragically, the church encourages this very thing—as Malkin said, it thrives because of the naivety and gullibility of followers. 

The claim that God did it diverts attention from the reality, which we need to face honestly, that evolution gifted our brains with aggression, territoriality, and deep suspicion of those outside the groups that nurture us—but not with a natural disposition to critical thinking. Hitler and the Nazis got away with what they did because of these flaws. Humanity won’t be able to overcome these flaws as long as God did it continues to have a lock on our understanding of the world.

There was actually an earlier colossal tragedy that may have nudged human thinking in the right direction. Barbara Tuchman, in her classic history of the Black Plague, which killed perhaps a third of the population between India and England, wrote this:

“Survivors of the plague, finding themselves neither destroyed nor improved, could discover no Divine purpose in the pain they had suffered. God’s purposes were usually mysterious, but this scourge had too terrible to be accepted without questioning. If a disaster of such magnitude, the most lethal ever known, was a mere wanton act of God or perhaps not God’s work at all, then the absolutes of a fixed order were loosed from their moorings. Minds that opened to admit these questions could never again be shut. Once people envisioned the possibility of change in a fixed order, the end of an age of submission came in sight; the turn to individual conscience lay ahead. To that extent the Black Death may have been the unrecognized beginning of modern man.”  (p. 129, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century1978) 

And yet the god-idea endures, despite the overwhelming evidence that it does not survive critical inquiry. In the 14th century, theologians were certain that their god was punishing sin; in the 20th century, they could do no better: that’s the brain locked onto the god-idea. But, full stop, the murder of six million Jews—indeed the death of 92 million people in two world wars—should mean the death of Christian theism itself.

Malkin states the case bluntly: “The Holocaust happened and presented an incontrovertible proof that Yahweh is dead. Even if he had existed once, he too perished in the gas chambers.” (p. 180) 


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. He is the author of two books, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith (2016; 2018 Foreword by John Loftus) and Ten Things Christians Wish Jesus Hadn’t Taught: And Other Reasons to Question His Words (2021). He has written for the Debunking Christian Blog since 2016.


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