World War I: Why Didn't It Put an End to Belief in God?

A personal, loving, competent god is out of the question

When we study episodes of colossal suffering in human history, we have to wonder: “How did belief in a good, powerful god survive these experiences?” The masses of people affected would have been more than justified in telling their priests to get lost. “The theology you’ve been peddling is all wrong.” The Black Plague of the 14th century, which brought horrible suffering and death to perhaps a third of the population from India to England, should have meant the end of personal theism, i.e., belief that a loving god manages the world, indeed, keeps close tabs on every person on earth. Unfortunately, critical thinking was not a common commodity at that time, so the church got away with preaching that human sin was the cause of the plague; god was getting even. This is stunningly bad theology, the embrace of supernatural evil, as Dan Barker has put it: the loving god had disappeared.



Christian theology fails to make any sense at all in the face of other historical calamities. During the American Civil War, Christians fought other Christians savagely. But they all prayed to the same god, whose inspired holy book included texts that viewed slavery as a normative practice. Indeed, slavery was not condemned even in the Ten Commandments. More than 600,000 men died in combat in that war. In the face of these events, thoughtful people should have seen that Christian theology doesn’t explain much at all. Christianity was not working as it was supposed to.


I would suggest, however, that World War I has truly catastrophic implications for Christian theology. The death toll, military and civilian, came to almost twenty million, and the war accelerated the flu epidemic that claimed as many as fifty million lives worldwide. This war brought brutality to new levels because of advances in weaponry, e.g., the machine gun, airplanes and aerial reconnaissance, tanks, poison gas, flame throwers. Most astounding of all, however, the combatants were traditionally super-Christian nations, England, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia. They all prayed to the same god, and yet generated propaganda to whip up zealous hatred of the enemy: Christian nations bent on destroying other Christian nations. Christianity was not working as it was supposed to.


In an earlier article on this blog, I commented on Erich Maria Remarque’s novel about the war, All Quiet on the Western Front. He was a German teenager when he was sent to the front, and experienced the full horrors of the trench warfare that went on for four years. After that book, I read G. J. Meyer’s 715-page book, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918, to get an overall perspective of the war, i.e., a detailed description of every year of the war. There were endless disagreements among the politicians and generals about tactics and strategies, so many bad and faulty decisions. So the horrible bloodshed, the stalemate in the trenches went on year after year. There was widespread starvation in Germany because the allies blocked its only sea lanes. 


Yet we can be sure that citizens of all the combatant nations prayed earnestly, offering fervent appeals to god for an end to the slaughter and madness. And why not? The affirmation of the New Testament is that god knows every person on earth intimately, i.e., what each one of us thinks, says, does. This god is always watching—so could not have been unaware of what was happening: 


“We see men living with their skulls blown open; we see soldiers run with their two feet cut off, they stagger on their splintered stumps into the next shell-hole; a lance-corporal crawls a mile and a half on his hands dragging his smashed knee after him; another goes to the dressing station and over his clasped hands bulge his intestines; we see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces; we find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death.” (p. 101, All Quiet on the Western Front)  


Why didn’t god put an end to this? “Well, he moves in mysterious ways” doesn’t satisfy any serious thinker. Pope Francis once said, after an earthquake in central Italy that killed hundreds of people, that god and his mother were there to comfort the victims (those still alive). That still leaves an enormous theological problem: why didn’t god prevent the earthquake? Even more to the point with respect to World War I, why didn’t god put an immediate stop to it?


We read at the opening of Mark’s gospel that the voice of god boomed from the sky, “You are my beloved son!” Couldn’t god have done the same thing with the leaders of those Christian nations that were massacring each other? Just stop it, this is not how I want you to treat each other.


We also have to wonder: more subtly (if you concede that a voice booming from the sky is part of Mark’s fantasy), why couldn’t god have changed the minds of the leaders and generals? That was beyond his power? Devout Christians claim that the Bible—more than a thousand pages—is god’s inspired word, i.e., god worked through the minds of the Bible authors to get them to write exactly what he wanted them to write. William Lane Craig insists that he knows his faith is the real thing, because the holy spirit is in his heart, guaranteeing that his faith is true. Why didn’t the holy spirit rise to the challenge of getting inside the heads of the politicians and generals to get them to stop the war? 


God works in mysterious ways is sometimes supplemented with the argument that god gave humans free will, so the suffering is our fault. But this doesn’t work either. God allowed horrendous slaughter of young soldiers to go on for four years because protecting free will was more important than rescuing these lives? This god had his priorities screwed up. 


What was true of the Black Plague is also true of World War I. The masses of people affected would have been more than justified in telling their priests to get lost. “The theology you’ve been peddling is all wrong.” Why didn’t that happen? —especially since citizens of the 20th century were supposedly far more enlightened than the citizens of the 14th century. In the comments section of my article about All Quiet on the Western Front, Daniel Wilcox recommended Philip Jenkins’ book, The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. So I read that book too. The G. J. Meyer book is a detailed history of the war, the Jenkins book illustrates how New Testament superstitions still prevailed and controlled the minds of so many people. 


At the opening of chapter one, Philip Jenkins wrote:


“The Great War took place in the world where many educated people thought that religion was destined to fade rapidly before the growing strength of science and technology. Yet the scale of violence in that war was so incomprehensibly vast that only religious language was adequate to the chore of describing it, or justifying it. The full horror of the war was obvious in its opening weeks… On a single day, August 22, the French lost twenty-seven thousand men killed in battles in the Ardennes and at Charleroi… During August and September 1914, four hundred thousand French soldiers perished, and already by year’s end, the war had in all claimed two million lives on both sides.” (pp. 29-30)


How could these frightful events not bring to mind New Testament teachings about the end times? In Jesus-script we find predictions that, at the coming of his kingdom, there will be as such suffering as at the time of Noah. Mark 13 is a description of the awful turmoil preceding the kingdom. There is this chilling Jesus-script, Matthew 10:34-36:


“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.”


And Luke 12:49: “I have come to cast fire upon the earth, and how I wish it were already ablaze!


These examples of dreadful theology are not standard Sunday School texts, but they are there to be cited when the world has descended to madness. 


Jenkins points out that…


“Eschatology had a broad appeal across nations and societies. Images of a forthcoming ultimate battle predominated in the years immediately before the war, partly because of the series of war scares between 1906 and 1912 (Bosnia, Morocco, and the rest). These end-time ideas appealed to progressive avant-garde figures at least as much as to traditionalists….The key innovators not only knew that war was coming soon but that they were liable to be conscripted to fight and die in the coming conflict. However much they espoused radical or anticlerical views, artists and writers ransacked their religious pasts in search of images and symbols that would allow them to come to terms with this fate…The imagery of apocalypse proved so overwhelmingly attractive that distinctions between mainstream faith and radical modernism often seem paper-thin.” (pp. 146-147) 


Fantasy seized many minds, as was the case in the era when the gospels were written. Thus the war provoked visions of angels, perhaps the most famous example being the angels of Mons, who were credited with saving the British army from defeat by the Germans in Belgium. But these angels didn’t manage to save the 1,600 British soldiers who perished in the battle. The visions of the Virgin Mary occurred at Fatima in Portugal, in 1917, after that country had entered the war. 


Jenkins notes that German militarism found its patron saint in Martin Luther, “…who in this era achieved messianic reputation. German churches had long venerated Luther, but adulation reached new heights with the rise of intense nationalism following the creation of the new empire in 1871.” (p. 174) Luther’s writing would also fuel the virulent anti-Semitism that seized Germany in World War II.


“By 1914, Luther had become the centerpiece of a religious-nationalist vision in which his Reformation marked almost a re-founding of Christianity itself…Luther became a wonderful figurehead for aggressive nationalism at its most ruthless.” (p. 174)


But, across the board, clergy commonly embraced enthusiasm for the war, as Jenkins notes:


“…the war was forcing tens of millions of Catholics to try to kill each other. Generally, when religious leaders had a primary identification with a state—as most did—they not only abandoned words of peace and reconciliation but advocated strident doctrines of holy war and crusades, directed against fellow Christians.” (p. 66)


“…while we might expect clergy to support their nations at war, in practice they went far beyond any simple endorsement and became vocal, even fanatical advocates. Often they presented sophisticated arguments for holy warfare, which drew heavily on both biblical tradition and Christian history.” (p. 67)


Is this the way Christianity is supposed to work? Its theology is so incoherent because the New Testament is an ill-thought-out mess. It managed to mix the messianism of the Old Testament (a hero would emerge to restore the chosen people to their rightful place) with apocalypticism that anticipated cataclysmic upheaval for the world at large.  


These ancient superstitions have no place at all in our modern world. But they’ve been advocated ceaselessly by ecclesiastical bureaucracies—what better credentials than the revered New Testament? —which enables bad theology to overrule critical thinking, logic, and a rational approach to the world. As the vast slaughter in the killing fields of 1914 became so obvious, people should have seen through the religious nonsense: there is no wise, powerful, good god watching out for us. Personal theism should have been knocked out cold by World War I. 


But the peace that eventually ended that war was a flawed, brutal peace, which eventually spawned Nazi Germany, whose fanaticism was identical to religious fervor—Gott mit uns was on Nazi belts. The march of religious insanity was not halted. Is that the way Christianity is supposed to work?




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). His YouTube channel is here. He has written for the Debunking Christianity Blog since 2016.


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