“Their only hope of being rescued from the hell Hitler has made of Europe”

The ongoing scandal of god’s negligence

It’s not a stretch to say that the Bible is one of Christian theology’s biggest burdens. It portrays a god that theologians have worked so hard to modify and refine; the very rough edges have to be knocked off. Among many other negatives, the Christian god is a terror-and-guilt specialist, because nothing you say or think escapes his notice. This is Jesus-script in Matthew 12:36-37: “I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” The apostle Paul also had an opinion on god getting even: “…on the day when, according to my gospel, God through Christ Jesus judges the secret thoughts of all” (Romans 2:16)—after all, how else would prayer work if god doesn’t know your secret thoughts? Hence devout Christians are confident that their god closely monitors every human being—all eight billion of us.


But here’s the problem: if this god is paying such super close attention, then he/she/it must also be aware of the pain, grief, and suffering of each person—and the dangers we all face because of what other people are thinking, saying, planning. This god’s failure to intervene—Christians claim he is all powerful, caring, and competent—presents theologians with a contradiction they’ve never been able to explain. Their god concept is remarkably incoherent: it just doesn’t make sense. To avoid this head-on collision with reality, clergy and theologians are sure their god has cured a few cancers (but obviously, by no means all), warms the hearts of the devout, and works in mysterious ways. All of their excuses for god’s carelessness remain pathetically inadequate. 


Barbara Tuchman, in her classic analysis of the Black Plague in the 14th century, noted that the unprecedented suffering shook Christian theology to its foundations: “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.” (p. 129, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century)   


The horrors of the 20th century have done even more damage to confidence in the Christian god. A few months ago, I published an article here on the theological implications of the Great War, 1914-1918: World War I: Why Didn’t It Put an End to Belief in God? The world succumbed to even more chaos a couple of decades later with the outbreak of World War II, which was an inevitable outcome of the hatreds and resentments in the wake of WWI—and the very flawed peace treaty that ended it.


Especially because of the Holocaust, the theological implications of World War II are even more devastating. The Nazi death machine, driven by Hitler’s blind hatreds, murdered six million people. Theologians claiming that there’s a good, powerful god watching over humankind (“This is my father’s world”) should just shut up and disappear—their theobabble is an insult. Another dodge sometimes used to protect god/theology is Holocaust denialism: it’s all a big lie. I have been studying the Holocaust for a long time, and such study is possible because this horror is one of the most thoroughly documented events in human history. The Nazis considered their elimination of so many Jews a great service to the world, and kept careful records. For a glimpse of this, see the 60 Minutes special, The Secret Nazi Archive that Documented the Holocaust. There are, as well, so many memoirs written by those who survived by escaping, or being liberated from the concentration camps. Both world wars are massively documented, with so many accounts of suffering, courage, and bravery.


The title of this article is a quote from Varian Fry’s book, Surrender on Demand, published in 1945. He was a 32-year-old American who headed for occupied France on a mission to rescue people fleeing from the Nazis. He had been sent by a committee whose mission it was to get as many people out alive as possible, a task that faced huge obstacles. He ended up staying on the job for thirteen months, until he was forced to leave by French authorities, working with the gestapo: the notorious regime in Vichy, headed by Philippe Pétain. In his Foreword included for the first time in the 1997 edition published in conjunction with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Fry

wrote about his expulsion:


“…I left France for the last time, left leaving behind so many refugees who had come to identify me with their only hope of being rescued from the hell Hitler has made of Europe.” (p. 242-243, Surrender on Demand)


Fry was based in Marseille. The book is a harrowing account of rescue missions undertaken at enormous risk, helping people flee France via the Mediterranean and across the Pyrenees on foot into Spain. Fry and his team had to arrange the forging of passports and exit visas, had to deal with the unpredictability of Spain’s changing policy on admitting refugees, had to work overtime concealing their activities from authorities. One of their primary headaches was the U.S. Department of State, which feared admitting refugees because some of them might be spies and other undesirables.    


But Fry was motivated by the reality he saw on the ground. He was alarmed when he thought of 


“…two young men who were brought through Marseille from a concentration camp in Africa and handed over to the Gestapo to be shot because they had had the courage to defy Hitler when they were members of the seaman’s union at Hamburg, years ago. All the other men who had been dragged out of the French concentration camps and handed over to the Nazis to be tortured, hanged, beheaded or shot.” (p. 244, Surrender on Demand)   


One of the successes of Fry’s team was the rescue of Konrad Heiden, a German historian who had written a scathing account of Hitler’s success, Der Fuehrer: Hitler’s Rise to Power—744 pages. On the dustjacket of the 1944 edition of this book, these words are under the title: “Using sensational new material, the world authority on Hitler tells the whole story of the Nazi road to chaos.” If the Nazis had caught Heiden, he would have been executed.  He made it to the U.S., eventually became a citizen, and died in New York City in 1966. I was lucky to find a copy on Amazon of the 1944 edition for just $11. I’m about 200 pages into it right now, and Heiden is indeed merciless in his depiction of the nonentity who rose to power—in large part because of his skills as an orator. He also describes in detail Hitler’s ferocious hatred of Jews. We cannot be surprised at all that the Holocaust became Nazi policy.  


One of Fry’s concerns was to get people—on his special list to be rescued—released from French concentration camps. 


“The conditions in French concentration camps could, with difficulty, have been worse. There was no deliberate torture, as in Nazi concentration camps, but there was everything else: cold, hunger, parasites and disease… one man wrote that rat meat had become a much-sought delicacy in his camp…dysentery was endemic and typhoid epidemic. And everywhere there were lice, fleas, and bedbugs” (p. 124, Surrender on Demand).   


Despite warning from friends that it was far too dangerous for him, Fry decided to go to Vichy to try persuade officials to release people from these camps. 


“Going to Vichy, even from Marseille, was like making a journey into the night. Vichy was a compound of fear, rumor and intrigue. The town itself is one of the dullest watering-spots imaginable. It must be bad enough in the ‘season’ in normal times; in winter, in conquered France, it was horrible” (p. 125, Surrender on Demand).


Fry went to the American Embassy to plead his case—“they were neither very polite nor particularly sympathetic”—but was seen only by an assistant. “You must understand that we maintain friendly relations with the French government.” [That is, the Nazi-controlled puppet regime.] “Naturally, in the circumstances, we can’t support an American citizen who is helping people evade French law” (p. 128). 


Fry’s mission was to help people escape from the Hitler-hell.


After two weeks of frustration, Fry decided to head back to Marseille. “The train back was so crowded that we had to stretch out on the floor of the corridor, separated from one another by the bodies of other sleeping passengers, and chilled by the drafts and the total absence of heat” (p. 129).


Those in power—in Vichy and at the U.S. State Department—eventually forced Varian Fry to return home. But it has been estimated that he played a role in helping well more than 2,000 folks escape. The Wikipedia article on Fry includes a list of more than sixty of the prominent people he aided, including Konrad Heiden and Marc Chagall and his wife Bella Rosenfeld.  


Fry then pursued a career in journalism, but was tormented by his experience in France. He went into therapy, but continued to go downhill. His first marriage ended in divorce, and he separated from his second wife. He died from a cerebral hemorrhage at age 60 in 1967. But his heroic efforts in France have been widely recognized. In 1991 the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council awarded him the Eisenhower Liberation Medal, and in 1994 Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial included him on its list, Righteous Among the Nations, the first American to be so honored. In Marseille, there is a plaza named after him. 


History keeps reminding us that Christian theology fails, because it cannot explain how an attentive god can be so negligent. Reading Surrender on Demand drives home this point. Varian Fry saw so much suffering and anguish that seems to have escaped god’s notice—this Christian deity who is supposed to be monitoring every human being so closely.


How can that possibly be true? In Christian Shakespeare’s book, Bunker 1945: The Last Ten Days of Adolf Hitler, we find an account of the ferocious fighting as the Russians took Berlin, while Hitler cowered in his bunker: 


“They also sprayed devastating machine gun fire into those buildings where German resistance was identified. Those defending behind barricades were blasted out by Soviet artillery that had been brought up and fired horizontally straight at them, killing and wounding many instantly. High explosive shells soon littered the streets with vomit-inducing images of body parts—a hand here, a torso there, half of a severed head were as common as the rubble.” (p. 92, Kindle)


Each one of those severed hands, torsos, and heads had been blasted from the bodies of men whom god was watching: he witnessed everything. So we are assured by Christian theology based on the New Testament. The attempts to get god off the hook can be so pathetic. “But he gave us free will—so get over it” is one excuse offered to explain god’s failure to act. I can’t imagine a more egregious example of bad theology. This doesn’t make god look good.


We’d like Christians to do better, but the incoherence of their theology pretty much rules that out. Too many of their claims about god collide head-on. The job of the clergy is to keep this from being oh so obvious. “Just take it on faith” is a diversion, and ceases to work when folks take a close, careful look at the history of horrendous human suffering.   



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). The Spanish translation of this book is also now available. 


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


The Cure-for-Christianity Library©, now with more than 500 titles, is here. A brief video explanation of the Library is here