It Was 80-Years Ago This Month: A Hideous Crime

How do Christians explain their god’s negligence? 

Many Christian brands willingly embrace the wrathful god of the Old Testament, and there are plenty of texts in the New Testament as well that endorse this anger: the coming of this god’s kingdom will bring extreme suffering. Other Christian brands downplay this concept of god, preferring to stress their god’s love and compassion. These clergy promote a warmer, fuzzier concept of god, e.g., what a friend we have in Jesus. Your sins will be forgiven if you ask for mercy: god wants to welcome you to eternal life. 
Challenges to this view of god are commonly deflected. The clergy don’t want their parishioners to ponder the devastating implications of horrendous suffering. How could a good, caring, powerful god allow the Holocaust to happen? Or the Black Plague? And what a tragic irony that Christian extremism brought so much suffering during the Inquisition, the violent Crusades, and the Thirty Years War.
But there is one event especially that the devout should try to align with their beliefs about god. On 6 June 1944, the Allies launched the Normandy Invasion, with the intention of pushing the German army out of France. On 10 June 1944, German soldiers surrounded a village in rural France, Oradour-sur-Glane. They forced the men into barns, which they set on fire. The women and children were herded into the church, into which the soldiers threw fire bombs—and then they machined gunned everyone. Only one woman managed to escape: 452 women and children were murdered in the church. I wonder if they felt safe and secure because they were in God’s House? How well does faith hold up when people think hard about this crime? Mass murder in the church. Author Sarah Farmer, in her book, Martyred Village: Commemorating the 1944 Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane, commented: “…the fact that God permitted women and children to die in a church caused a crisis and even loss of faith among many believers who lived in Oradour.” (p. 103, Martyred Village)
Devout Christians who muster the courage to think about this crime should resist the clichés they hear from the clergy, such as “god works in mysterious ways, god has a bigger plan we’re not aware of.” I recently saw this comment on social media: “A god that works in mysterious ways bears a suspicious resemblance to shit just happening.” Both these clichés are a confession: “We have no clue why our god allows such evils, and we’re making totally uneducated guesses.” How could these phony excuses bring any comfort to those whose relatives were murdered in the church? People go to church on the assumption that there, more than anywhere else, god is paying attention to them, god is aware of their presence and prayers.
Liturgical calendars should be amended: the second Sunday of every June should be designated Oradour Sunday, a rare occasion when clergy can encourage their followers to face their doubts head-on, and urge them to move beyond clichés and come up with serious explanations for god’s negligence. 
For true Bible believers, it’s very hard to explain their god’s failure to prevent this crime. In 2 Samuel 6:6-8, we read that Yahweh killed Uzzah instantly because he’d touched the Ark of the Covenant to prevent it from falling. This god also killed all the first-born of Egypt. Why didn’t he kill—or at least knock unconscious—all those German soldiers with machine guns? Why didn’t he turn the fire bombs into duds? If you believe that your god can turn water into wine, heal people by touch or magic potions (i.e., mud made from dirt and Jesus-spit), then preventing this mass killing in a church should not have been a big challenge.  
But for those who assume that their god is wrathful, this mass murder in a church might qualify as punishment. Maybe sin was rampant in Oradour-sur-Glane. This argument, however, would plunge us into major theological problems about the nature of god(s). This brings to mind another horrible tragedy, much earlier.
Almost two hundred years prior to this brutal crime, there was a natural disaster that killed a lot of people in churches. On All Saints’ Day, 1 November 1755, a catastrophic earthquake struck Lisbon, Portugal with full force. So many people were in churches for the special holiday, and thousands died as the churches collapsed on top of them. The next wave of destruction was a tsunami, which was followed by a firestorm that lasted for days. The churches had many candles burning, and private homes had fires for cooking—the rubble of collapsed buildings ignited: fires exploded across the city. It has been estimated that 30,000-40,000 people were killed. A comprehensive report on these events can be found in Mark Molesky’s 2015 book, This Gulf of Fire: The Great Lisbon Earthquake, or Apocalypse in the Age of Reason and Science (paperback, 358 pages). 
Lisbon was a super Catholic city, and in the absence of understanding of what causes earthquakes, prominent clergy argued that the catastrophe could be attributed to divine wrath. Almost a year later:
“In Peru, Archbishop Don Antonio de Barroeta of Lima composed a pastoral letter on September 20, 1756, in which he blamed the Lisbon Earthquake on ‘Divine Justice.’ ‘Our crimes,’ he wrote, ‘are the true cause of earthquakes and the destruction of churches.’ To be sure, earthquakes are more prevalent in Peru than Portugal, he added, but that was because the sins of the New World were greater than those of Iberia.”  (p. 341, This Gulf of Fire)  
Well, maybe not. Lisbon’s brand of Catholicism was strange indeed:
“By the eighteenth century, the distinction between Lisbon’s convents and its brothels was practically nonexistent. ‘Throwing aside their…habits, covered with rouge, with patches, and diamonds,’ the city’s nuns were, to one French observer, ‘little more than cloistered prostitutes,’ who ‘excited…the most refined gallantry, and passed for the most attractive favorites of the Portuguese nobility.’ So many noblemen frequented Lisbon’s convents in pursuit of pleasure that midwives referred to newborn babies as ‘little canons of the Patriarchal Church’ or as ‘little capuchin nuns.’” (p. 55, This Gulf of Fire)   
Yet the Virgin Mary’s status as a powerful goddess remained totally secure. 
“There had been many acts of mercy in Lisbon. But none was more important than that of the Virgin Mary, who, in the opinion of most lisboetas, had saved the city from complete annihilation through her special intercession.” (p. 214, This Gulf of Fire)
“On November 12, Pombal [the strongman who dealt with the crisis] asked the Senate, in the name of the king, to recognize the Virgin Mary for her special and decisive intercession in preventing the complete destruction of the city.” (. 221, This Gulf of Fire)
How does this not qualify as confused theology? The Virgin Mary, Queen of Heaven, didn’t have quite enough power to prevent the catastrophe? And her “decisive intercession” was with whom? Was she trying to get god-the-Father, the top guy in the Trinity, to calm down? This is what happens when religion is under the sway of superstition and irrationality. Another example of this:
“But of all the property lost in the disaster, the most widely and deeply mourned by lisboetas were the thousands of beloved statues, sacred paintings, crosses, and reliquaries with their holy contents.” (p. 274, This Gulf of Fire)
The colossal theological problem remains: why would a good, caring, powerful god use earthquake-tsunami-firestorm—or the murder of 452 women and children in a church—to express his rage at human sin? That’s blind, immoral rage. But it’s hard to defeat this bad theology that is so deeply rooted in the Bible itself. 
In fact, many serious thinkers in Europe, following the Lisbon earthquake, struggled to reevaluate theology—and Mark Molesky deals with this in his 37-page final chapter titled, Reverberations. There was some movement away from god-did-it thinking: “…most Spanish scholars were united in their conviction that the popular understanding of earthquakes as signs or punishments from God was foolishness.” (p. 338, This Gulf of Fire)

And people today can be disgusted by the foolishness of bad theology. Children are the unlucky co-lateral damage when god gets mad? No wonder Christianity is losing its grip—and evangelicals are struggling to set up theocracy as compensation. Rodney Wilson, in his book, Killing God: Christian Fundamentalism and the Rise of Atheism, provides an example of the disgust (Kindle, Loc 1145):

“A forty-year-old mother of an eight-month old watched the Christmas 2004 Asian tsunami in horror. From the warm comfort of her living room, she saw a news story about an Indonesian mother who ‘watched all eleven of her children swept away.’ A few days later, she overheard a Christian friend ask: ‘I just wonder what those people did to incur God’s wrath like that.’ It was at that precise moment, she reports, that she ‘absolutely knew that there was no god.’”


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, now being reissued in several volumes, the first of which is Guessing About God (2023) 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. At the invitation of John Loftus, 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